Before Harry Potter and Hogwarts, there were the girls of Malory Towers and St Clare’s to create the perfect image of boarding school for generations of day school children. And before them were the novels of Angela Brazil, the ur-text of boarding school fiction. Her jolly-hockey-stick creatures, propelled by perpetual enthusiasm and gallons of pop were the inspiration for Daisy Pulls It Off, an affectionate spoof of the mores of those books from the 1920s.
Denise Deegan’s play enjoyed surprising and sustained success in the West End in the mid-1980s, but – as her programme note points out – it was originally written for a small-scale cast of women, in order to provide more work for actresses. It is that pioneering spirit the director Paulette Randall conjures here with an age and race-blind cast taking many roles. And she absolutely pulls it off. This Daisy is a delight, stupendously silly but completely charming.
Randall is much helped by the sophisticated designs of Libby Watson who provides a giant blackboard backdrop filled with a chalk drawing of the majestic Grangewood School where all the action is set. Smaller blackboards on wheels or wires and a set of library steps provide the context for individual scenes. The girls are dressed in colour-coded, fitted gymslips with just a coat or a different wig indicating a switch of role.
Within this perfectly judged frame, the performances are equally smart as scholarship girl Daisy arrives at the school, battles bullies, indulges in hot water bottle fights, searches for hidden treasure, proves herself a whizz at hockey and ultimately saves the day. It’s probably the slimmest plot ever to sustain an evening in the theatre, but it just about holds with the help of some knowing asides and a warm heart.
The entire cast judges the balance between taking it seriously and sending them up. Only two stay in character throughout: Anna Shaffer‘s Daisy has the hardest job because she has to be continuously good, which she masters with great sweetness while Pauline McLynn endows the bespectacled Trixie, her only friend, with a swooping joy, fastening on every enthusiastic, kindly sentiment, scrunching her face in delight.
The rest are just as good. I particularly liked Lucy Eaton‘s doubling of the headmistress who lands firmly on random words and the Irish Alice with an enormous crush on head girl Clare (beaming Melanie Fullbrook) "a shining example of British girlhood". The token man, Freddie Hutchins, has great fun as Mr Scublowski, the enigmatic Russian music teacher, while Shobna Gulati and Clare Perkins are a delight as Daisy’s snobbish tormentors the one all strangulated vowels, the other a deep-voiced mess of psychopathic twitches and grovelling.
There is a message: it’s wrong that wealth should buy you influence. But it is lightly worn. The real pleasure lies in an imaginatively staged hockey match, a cliff top rescue and a ridiculously convoluted happy ending. Spiffing fun for Christmas.
Daisy Pulls It Off runs at Park Theatre until 13 January 2018.