By Rose McKean
“Imagine a world where (left to their own devices), people choose kindness” – Emma Rice
This week, York Theatre Royal brought audiences a riotous revival of the Enid Blyton classic: Malory Towers; the latest production to emerge from Emma Rice’s new company, Wise Children. Primarily based on the events of Malory Towers, First Term, this exuberant tale reacquaints audiences with Darrell Rivers and her lively ensemble of friends, as they navigate the many moral conundrums of childhood. Whether Mary Lou’s cloying anxiety, Darrell’s overpowering temper, or Alicia’s struggles to keep up with class, each character offers a powerfully sympathetic avenue through which to enter their reality: the life of a child growing up in post-WW2 Britain.
In this retelling, Emma Rice balances the delightful nostalgia of Blyton’s imaginative boarding school, with her own deliciously subversive energy. Though the rather redundant Modern framing, provides a somewhat unsteady first scene, the play rapidly improves as we are transported to its predominate mid-20th century setting. From this point onwards Rice skilfully conjures a world of intoxicating childhood freedom and comforting familiarity (a typically Blytonian paradox) while updating the more problematic aspects of Blyton’s works. As Rice herself remarks, the show is “joyfully radical to its bones.”
This is, perhaps, the shows primary source of praise. Rice’s Malory Towers maintains a deep respect for the original text, while offering its pupils a much more inclusive and accepting school. In the space of the theatre young women from all walks of life can partake in the joy of Blyton’s stories. Blyton’s gripping adventures, and valuable ethical lessons, are thus open to all, and an active class participation is immediately demanded from the audience.
Though the narrative structure of the play was sometimes faulty, its energetic performances drove the show. In particular, Francesca Mills shone as the incredibly tightly-wound, but relentlessly kind Sally Hope, whose impeccable comic timing never failed to land a big laugh. As a Satirical parody of the Blyton’s often obscenely and posh well-to-do child-protagonists, Sally is an essential character in preserving the charm of Blyton’s books. The audience also could not help but fall for the ineffable boyish charm of Bill (Vinnie Heaven). Their inclusion in the group as an authentic gender-queer character provided a truly heart-warming (though rarely seen) exchange of acceptance and support, and a touching vocal performance from Heaven.
The Set design by Lez Brotherston was also well-thought out and effective, taking full advantage of a number of creative multi-media video projections. However, the show’s dependency on these for many of the visual gags was exposed when the projector failed to work half-way through the performance, a mishap that somewhat undermined Rice’s carefully constructed world. However, Kerry Jarrett beautifully nostalgic crayon-effect illustrations, bridged the visual gap between the stage and Enid Blyton’s textual world.
As we reached the play’s final scenes, Rice’s magnificent world-building was somewhat jeopardised by the clumsy movement from 20th back to 21st century. This addendum provided a perhaps unnecessarily obvious connection between Enid Blyton’s characters, and contemporary society. However, this moment does, by no means, ruin what is a thoroughly enjoyable play from beginning to end.
Although, Rice’s Malory Towers, is not as picturesquely ‘perfect’ as Blyton’s original, I believe this is essential to its charm. Rice’s school never demands perfection, rather drives its students to accept each other as they are, and above all to “choose kindness” at every opportunity.