Tuesday 10th September 2019 at York Theatre Royal.
Wise Children bring a wholesome tale with a few thrilling rough edges to the stage in this musicalised production of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers. As far as children’s stories go, Malory Towers has it all; sparky youngsters, peripheral grown-ups, minor conflicts with potentially perilous consequences and ultimately a wholly satisfying conclusion. It’s funny and quaint but also fiery and intelligent, painting young girls on the cusp of womanhood as a great force of measured good in the world. Emma Rice adapts and directs what proves to be an energetic production which is at once a time capsule of a simpler time for young people and a timeless depiction of youthful shenanigans.
What we’re left with as the grown ups fade into the distance is an unlikely dynamic of a mini society created and maintained by young people – and there’s an inherent fascination with how young people might find their way through unchartered territory when left to their own devices. In a distinctly post-war attitude, Malory Towers crafts women ‘the world can lean on’ and very early on the establishment places the girls in a position of great combined responsibility as daughters, students and as citizens of the world. That’s a lot to carry on developing shoulders but our girls are up to the challenge as they negotiate differences via inevitable conflicts and a deeply engrained sense of decency and kindness.
Joined by Pianist Stephanie Hockley, our cast sing, dance and navigate their way through the story of strife and camaraderie with relish. Composer Ian Ross spans the breadth of their experiences with a variety of musical styles which are beautifully reflected in Alistair David’s lively choreography – the swinging Putting on the Ritz style number is a real highlight. Set and costume designs from Lez Brotherston see schools old and new brought into being alongside cliff tops and dormitories with some clever efficiency and the production benefits greatly from a backdrop of animation (Simon Baker) which smacks of school book doodling and youthful daydreams.
The girls at this boarding school are a marvellous bunch and the cast bring the children to life with a kind of nostalgic charm and the very best of universally recognisable markers of youthfulness. Particularly winning in this production is the authenticity of the characterisations – the girls are a mix of truthful stereotypes jumbled up with secret depths and fallible personalities despite their surface perfection. Most in the audience will identify aspects of themselves in more than one character and that’s most definitely a testament to the quality of the production and cast.
Rebecca Collingwood makes an excellent tragic villain as Gwendoline Lacey – all high volume and low tolerance in the beastliest and best of ways. One of my favourite things about this production is its willingness to go all-out in the young villain stakes. To begin, our baddie really is bad – a thoroughly rotten child with no apparent saving graces, leaving sanitised versions of huffy spoilt brats by the wayside while Collingwood prepares for another vicious tirade – fabulous stuff.
Mirabelle Gremaud’s Irene DuPont represents for the arts faculty with a plethora of musical talents and a general deep artistic thoughtfulness while Vinnie Heaven’s Bill Robinson brings a contemporary edge to the production, portraying a character at odds with the restrictive requirements of an all girl school and thereby ensuring that all young people here are seen and recognised as individuals. Renée Lamb brings one liners charismatically to life as Alicia Johns and her infectiously cheery naughtiness makes her a real standout.
Izuka Hoyle is fantastic as the principled pal with a hot head but a heart firmly in the right place – her Darrell Rivers is entirely the best kind of friend a girl like poor Mary Lou Atkinson needs. Rose Shalloo’s take on the lovable underdog without an ounce of self-belief and a backbone in need of excavation is note perfect. There’s a fine balance struck between being comically endearing as this pathetic victim and the eventual sense of shared triumph in the minor strides taken towards a stronger sense of self.
Now if ever a show like this could be stolen, it would be Francesca Mills’ Sally Hope carrying the swag bag. Equal parts unequivocating voice of wisdom, bluntly rational grown up and walking moral compass, she is a strong force within the friendship circle and brings the bulk of comedy in the production to the fore. From a tendency towards unexpected sprightly movement to deadpan RP delivery to perfectly timed pointed reactions, Mills is a delight to watch.
Malory Towers is a thoroughly entertaining hybrid of nostalgic children’s fiction and contemporary rebelliousness and it’s a brilliant production for children and grown-ups alike. A*s all round!