Emma Rice’s second production with her Wise Children company is an affectionate musical adaptation of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books about a Cornish girls’ boarding school.
It doesn’t take long to figure out why Rice was drawn to the material; it’s a story of community, youth, hope and female friendship set in a cliff-top crucible in which girls become “women the world can lean on”.
After opening with a somewhat inconsequential framing device in which a group of modern schoolgirls turn their noses up at the idea of reading Enid Blyton, Rice swiftly transports us into the world of pinafores and hockey sticks, a relatively faithful if more inclusive version of the world presented in Blyton’s books.
Darrell Rivers (Izuka Hoyle) boards the train for her first term at Malory Towers and swiftly becomes friends with serious Sally (Francesca Mills), class joker Amelia (Renee Lamb), and timid Mary Lou (Rose Shalloo). But spoilt, mean Gwendoline (Rebecca Collingwood) wants nothing to do with any of them; as she tells them repeatedly, she’d much rather be at finishing school in Switzerland.
Rice’s production evokes the gentle jeopardy of the novels, while not ignoring how merciless teenage girls can be; poor Mary Lou’s head is held under water in one scene and one of the biggest moments of emotional crisis comes when Darrell is “sent to Coventry” (a term the production explains for the benefit of younger audience members). But the over-arching tone is one of acceptance and empathy. Gwendoline might be a bully, but she’s having a hard time of it at home; Amelia’s jokes hide her insecurities.
The post-war setting is shown to be a time of optimism, but also a period of national trauma that even the school can’t insulate the girls from. Since parents are both physically and emotionally absent, they become each others’ family.
The whole thing culminates in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Sally almost ruins with her rigidity and rules – you can’t help but feel Rice is having a bit of mild but justifiable fun at the expense of her former employer Shakespeare’s Globe.
Lez Brotherston’s set, with its moveable desks and dormitory beds, is versatile, while Simon Baker’s crayon-effect projections capture the school’s coastal backdrop and a pivotal thunder storm in which a distressed Mary Lou almost comes a cropper.
While always endearing, the production feels a little slight at times, a little rose-tinted too. It never really grapples with questions of privilege or class.
It’s warm-hearted and fun, though, and the cast does a cracking job, singing, dancing and supplying musical accompaniment. All the actors have strong voices, but this is particularly true of Collingwood. Hoyle anchors the production as the hot-tempered, righteous Darrell and Mills is a delight as sensible Sally, her comic timing spot-on. Trans non-binary actor Vinnie Heaven also makes a charismatic splash as the dashing, horse-mad Bill.