There is something truly magical about Emma Rice’s production of Malory Towers. Malory Towers is an adaptation of the series of six Malory Towers novels by Enid Blyton, published just after WWII. The story is set in a girl’s boarding school and follows Darrell Rivers, and her friends, on their journey from rough diamonds into strong, capable young women ready and eager to make a significant contribution to the world.
Many post war children, particularly those who lived away from their parents at boarding school and/or as evacuees, comment on a resulting emotional reserve between them and their parents. Blyton’s story reflects this, with parents, and indeed all adults, playing only a high-level guidance role in the girls’ lives. Instead, Blyton’s novel lauds values of self-reliance, integrity, grit, pragmatism, service and the creation of family from friends. The Malory Towers novels provided millions of little girls across the world (and some little boys too) with the solace of a virtual family made up of warm, talented and flawed peers.
Although updating the story to make it more inclusive, Emma Rice’s production remains largely faithful to the spirit of the original novels. The stagecraft for this production is utterly exquisite; the best I have seen since the 2003 stage adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The set is beautifully designed and fiendishly clever, serving equally well as a realistic cliff, hills, the sea, and a school. The set, combined with the lighting and sympathetic and beautiful projections, creates a true wonderland that instantly takes the audience back to the post war Cornish sea side, where the school is set. Similarly, the music is gorgeous, catchy and sophisticated, enhanced by the prodigious talent of the cast members, almost all of whom have superb solo voices. Indeed, every aspect of the production is refined, from the nostalgic costumes to the truly elegant and evocative programme. Emma Rice’s Malory Towers production feels like the work of years of careful thought and dedication to the ideals that the story embodies.
And yet, the performances weren’t perfect. It took around 25 minutes for the actors to settle into the story; with some quite marked and unnecessary overacting at the beginning. Similarly, despite the actors wearing microphones, many lines were delivered with shouted rather than projected voices. Mirabelle Gremaud, playing Irene Dupont, had such an eccentric style of delivering her lines that it was almost impossible to understand what she was saying. It is a mark of her talent that this didn’t seem to matter and was more than made up for by her contribution to the music and the sheer physicality of her performance.
The decision to give the character Bill, played by Vinnie Heaven, a solo, was a pity – their* singing voice was weak and unremarkable though not unpleasant. Given the glorious beauty of the other actors’ singing voices, it seemed a lost opportunity. I am sure the audience would have given anything to hear Renee Lamb’s rich, luxurious soul voice singing another solo as Alicia Johns.
These flaws became irrelevant in the scheme of things – showing the magic of the theatre – with the sum being so much more than its parts. Malory Towers is children’s theatre at its spectacular, challenging and magical best.
Housekeeping: Although this is a children’s production, parents will want to know that issues of suicide, bullying and mental health are covered in detail. At the performance I went to, the average age of the audience looked to be around 14. Parents of children younger than 10 will want to carefully consider whether this performance is appropriate for their little ones. This performance has many loud bangs and very bright flashing lights and is not suitable for those sensitive to these things.
*Vinnie Heaven is a non-binary trans actor and is, therefore, referred to using non-binary pronouns.
- Adapted from Enid Blyton's Malory Towers novels by Emma Rice
- Directed by Emma Rice
- Music by Ian Ross
- Choreography by Alistair David
- Cast includes Rebecca Collingwood, Izuka Hoyle, Francesca Mills and Rose Shalloo.
- The Oxford Playhouse
- Until 5 October