Emma Rice’s last show, Wise Children, the first for her theatre company of the same name, was adapted from Angela Carter’s sexy tale of outsiders, illegitimates and cabaret queens. This one, based on Enid Blyton’s boarding-school series, with its jolly japes and dormitory dramas, could not be further removed from that world.
But Rice has called the Malory Towers series “radical to its bones”, and if it is not exactly that on stage, it is made rollicking in her enchanting musical production.
It combines storylines from the six books, which were written between 1946 and 1951 (though much of it is from First Term… ), and draws out their themes of friendship, bullying and the effects of postwar trauma on children. It mostly keeps the period setting, but is framed by the present day, the pupils appearing briefly in contemporary dress, some holding mobile phones, before we are transported to Blyton’s world.
The look, sound and feel of the production give a clear sense of a Rice makeover. Just as in Wise Children, there are strong strains of cabaret, with song, dance, hints of camp and a preoccupation with theatrical artifice. The girls put on a play, and reflect on the nature of creativity and drama. There are occasional back-flips and some harp-playing. The songs are emotional and evocative, even if some are drenched in nostalgia – Mr Sandman, for example, and Sing, Sing, Sing.
In casting terms, Blyton’s Malory girls now encompass difference and diversity, with two actors of colour (the excellent Izuka Hoyle as Darrell Rivers and Renée Lamb as Alicia), another who is non-binary (Vinnie Heaven as tomboy Bill Robinson) and one who has dwarfism (Francesca Mills, who plays Sally Hope with bossy brilliance). The cast are all equally magnificent, energetic performers with forceful, flawless voices.
At times, Blyton’s overbearing moral messages about kindness and cruelty jar, if only for adults, and sometimes Sally’s lines sound too adult. But a note of wryness enters Rice’s script, particularly in the second part, when some lines are said with faux naivety and others with tongue firmly in cheek, so that an affectionate subversiveness begins to arise.
Rice’s rigour and passion are clear to see in her direction and the production as a whole, which is stuffed full of inventions and enchantments. Lez Brotherston’s mezzanine set is clean but complex, the back-screen used in thrilling ways (with a train scene reminiscent of Wise Children’s bus scene), the floorboards lifting up to conjure a swimming pool, a French class morphing in a few nifty moves into a Parisian restaurant with can-can dancers.
There’s a sense of total theatre as the actors clamber among the audience and perform during the interval in the foyer, which in itself feels like an extension of the set with its blackboards, hopscotch and fairy lights.
Best of all, it is a celebration of girlhood, with Blyton’s postwar focus on the necessity not just to be kind but to be strong women. This, ironically, gives Malory Towers its most contemporary resonance. For grownups, it is a knowing trip back in time. For kids, it is magic.