The REP, Birmingham, Friday 1st May, 2015
Expectations are more than knee high for a Kneehigh production. You expect to see certain things delivered in a certain style and once again director Emma Rice does not disappoint. The trappings of a Kneehigh show are all in evidence: the onstage musicians underscoring the action, beautiful puppetry (the dog is especially endearing) and a certain brio to the performance style.
Daphne du Maurier’s dark tale of jealousy becomes in this treatment a fairy story. A young girl moves into a castle (well, Manderley!) and discovers, Bluebeard-like, that her new husband has secrets… It’s not that the house is haunted but the inhabitants are, unable to shake off the memory of De Winter’s first wife, the eponymous and unseen Rebecca.
Imogen Sage is suitably appealing as the second Mrs De Winter, blundering from faux pas to faux pas and giving rise to tension. Tristan Sturrock cuts a dash as widower/newlywed Maxim De Winter, a man whose inner torments cause anguish and outbursts of temper. He is out-debonaired though by Ewan Wardrop as Jack Favell, his first wife’s lover. Wardrop sweeps across the stage, Astaire-like and cocky. You can see why Rebecca strayed! Emily Raymond is dour and yet impassioned as housekeeper Mrs Danvers, devoted to her former boss, and particularly enjoyable are Lizzie Winter and Andy Williams (not that Andy Williams) as hedonistic in-laws, Beatrice and Giles. Katy Owen almost steals the show as young servant Robert, whose dancing has to be seen to be believed.
For me, this production is all about the staging. Leslie Travers’s set combines elements of the rugged Cornish coast with the interior of Manderley and, depending on how scenes are lit (designed by Tim Lutkin) either the house or the Poldarkian landscape dominates. A boat, lowered from the flies, becomes part of the floor in the house – it is as though they are dancing on the drowned Rebecca’s grave. Flashes of lightning remind us of the duality of mankind; beneath the veneer of civilisation run the powerful forces of nature. This is certainly true of Maxim De Winter – and the rest of us too!
It’s an enchanting and inventively theatrical production that should satisfy Kneehigh fans and Du Maurier aficionados alike.