Review: Malory Towers (Passenger Shed, Bristol)
Emma Rice's adaptation of Enid Blyton's series of novels, created by her theatre company Wise Children, has its world premiere in Bristol
Like a 1940s jolly hockey sticks version of Destiny's Child's "Independent Women", Emma Rice's adaptation of Malory Towers is a call-to-arms for young women everywhere to step up and make the world a better place. The director and her team combine mischief, humour, music and a message everyone can take home (Rice on her usual form, then), to make Enid Blyton's classic children's novels come vividly to life on stage.
The second project for Wise Children plays out not in a theatre but in Bristol's Passenger Shed, once a Great Western Railway terminus. Feeling a little like Battersea Arts Centre's Grand Hall, the stage is end-on with temporary raked seating and, in this current weather, some very hot audience members. But even the heat struggles to stifle the joy of this production, down in no small part to a brilliant cast of seven.
It's a traumatic encounter and a dream which takes us into the world of Malory Towers, where a bunch of young women arrive on the coast to begin their time at the boarding school. It's like Harry Potter, without the wands, but with a magic of sorts. There's the tempestuous Darrell Rivers, the wise and sensible Sally Hope, the anxious Mary Lou, the artistic Irene, the horse-obsessed Bill, the joke-telling Sally and the very nasty Gwendoline. The plot follows the ladies as they arrive in awe of the school, led by Miss Grayling (the voice of Sheila Hancock, seen only in Simon Baker's excellent video designs) and try to uphold its ideals: "to become women that the world can lean on". Of course tempers, tears and fights get in the way – although rest assured, nothing too terrifying befalls our group of girls – this is Enid Blyton after all.
And yet, this retelling is certainly not benign. Like she always seems to, Rice brings out the quietly revolutionary elements in the original stories, where the characters are left to their own devices to sort out the world, and each individual, independent spirit is allowed to prosper and thrive. At Malory Towers there's so much delight in difference.
That difference is embodied by a superb ensemble cast, with singing and acting chops aplenty. There are Six the Musical alumni here in the form of Izuka Hoyle as Darrell and Renée Lamb as Alicia and these two bring power and sass to Rice's songs. Francesca Mills uses her superlative comic timing to great effect as the uptight Sally, while Rose Shalloo is a Mary Lou you really feel for. Vinnie Heaven's Bill deftly demonstrates how feeling 'like myself' does not necessarily come from accepting the name you were born with. They are all, bound together, excellent.
The songs in this piece include old classics from Edith Piaf and Pat Ballard alongside new works from Rice and composer Ian Ross. They are a little more pop-anchored, a little less folky, than what we have come to expect from Rice's tunes, but that's no bad thing. And the harmonies, on songs such as "Hush Now Sally" are an example of Ross and Rice working at their most sophisticated and accessible.
The narrative itself is very simple and has a few weak spots, but it is held up admirably by the cast. Although proceedings do lose their impetus towards the end when the play within a play within a play begins. It feels a little like the end-of-term production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is plonked on, rather than woven through. And once the glorious opening song and dance number had happened, I also missed Alistair David's choreography.
Although there is lots to be enjoyed by the adults, Malory Towers is a play that speaks very directly to the young people, demonstrating how arguments escalate and hatred can build, but also showing them the power and possibility they wield. Who else is down with that? In the words of Destiny's Child: throw your hands up at me.