MALORY TOWERS - AT THE CAMBRIDGE ARTS THEATRE
As a fully paid-up member of the Enid Blyton generation, I approached this production with some trepidation. Would the old gal’s jolly-hockey-sticks world of Fifties fun laced with terribly un-PC characters and plots reflecting a world where Britain still believed in Empire…. would Blyton’s Blighty be sent up something rotten? As a boy in short trousers, I devoured Enid’s novels – the Famous Five and Secret Seven stories. But Malory Towers? Those boarding school japes were for girls surely? On the basis of Emma Rice’s new adaptation of the Blyton tales, I now bitterly regret not having read them.
Against my expectations of a savage send-up of the stories, the former director of Kneehigh and Globe theatres has actually produced an affectionate tribute to the author. The show has many of Rice’s trademarks – shenanigans in the foyer with the actors in character, the use of projected images, songs and on-stage musicianship. The set neatly created the world of the schoolgirl dorm of the 1940s and 50s and the arching walls of the Cornish castle, home to the eponymous Malory Towers school. On to these walls are projected all manner of scenes using the kind of pen and ink animations you might find in early editions of the six novels written between 1946 and ’51. A clever filmic device depicts the school’s headmistress (voiced by Sheila Hancock) as an animated shadow, a ghostly presence.
The story begins actually in a school of today – a group of girls wait outside the head’s office awaiting some kind of reprimand. A fight ensues and one of the pupils is knocked out. She has been reading – you guessed it – Malory Towers. What follows is a dream world in which Blyton’s characters are brought to life. We have travelled back to the 1940s, to post-war austerity Britain. It is the first day of a new term and a group of girls head towards the school, all but one, for the first time. We are introduced to the seven girls who represent a range of characteristics: the timid and bully-able Mary Lou, the hot tempered Darrell Rivers, the bossy but ever so sensible Sally, the jokey Alicia, the musical Irene and the awfully spoilt, bad egg Gwendoline. A latecomer to the band of sisters is Wilhelmina who prefers to be called Bill and rides into the school on the trusted horse Thunder.
What follows are three loosely related episodes: a tale of false accusation following the tormenting of Mary Lou, a cliff-edge drama and the drama of rehearsing the school play. In each case the focus of the narrative gets a little blurred. Rice can’t resist playful theatrics and the insertion of songs some of which had an authentic period feel (such as the catchy close-harmony version of ‘Mr Sandman’), while others certainly did not even try though the new tunes were awfully catchy.
That lack of period consistency was a weakness for this version of the Attlee-period yarn. There was also a sense of drift in the narrative – a sure sign of the devised nature of the script. An example of this was a wholly unnecessary (and overlong) excerpt from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ which gave the excellent actors a chance to shine at Shakespearean verse but it was very difficult to see the point.
These caveats of mine should not detract from a show that was full of good-hearted fun, visual treats and crackingly impressive ensemble acting. Rice plays tribute to Blyton’s subtext – a genuine call for decency, kindness and mutual support in a world that had just witnessed the savage cruelty of a world war. The contrast between the Malory world of sisterly compassion and the present zeitgeist of i-phone individualism was clearly signalled (though culminating in a strangely damp squib ending).
Given the gloom of the present days, joining the decent gals of Malory Towers is just the (Flying Scotsman) ticket to a happier and more hopeful place. After last night’s show, I can wear my Blyton generation badge with pride.