MANDERLEY AGAIN, AND VERY WELCOME TOO
“Last night, I dreamed I went to Manderley again…” The famous opening is spoken from the sea-bed: a dim otherworld where a jointed lifeless body descends from far above, crushed beneath a wrecked boat. Which – as a vast chandelier descends in turn – becomes sometimes a table, sometimes floor, beneath the leprous plaster and high broken banisters of a grand ruined house above. So the set itself is the ghost of Manderley and of the rockbound Cornish bay where the first wife Rebecca met her end. Within this frame, between a dark past and a smouldering end, the story will play out. Fishermen intone the first shanty “Go down, you blood red roses”. Brilliant.
Kneehigh, and Emma Rice’s direction elsewhere, are generally original, quirky, larky, musical, a touch camp, prone to outbreaks of puppetry, but focused on storytelling and above all theatrically atmospheric. This touring production, I am happy to say, is their finest since Brief Encounter . It’s a glorious evening: both faithful to the spirit and shape of Daphne du Maurier’s chronicle of second-wife paranoia and Bluebeard dread, and mischievously subversive of it.
Perhaps the Cornish setting inspired the Truro company even more than usual. In folkish Kneehigh tradition it is interwoven with shanties (and that lovely Wilburn brothers ballad Give Them The Roses Now, sung by Frith the butler to cheer up poor Mrs de Winter after the ball débacle). Cast members casually pick up instruments – bass, banjo, fiddle, accordion – and deftly create interiors with props, often singing in hair-raising harmony. There are tweaks: Rice has made Maxim de Winter’s sister Bea and her husband a pair of rip-roaring, huntin-shootin’-shaggin’-drinkin’ County party-animals, at one point executing a spirited sand-dance routine in Arabic costumes and leading a vo-de-o-do outbreak as an Act 2 opener. Lizzie Winkler and Andy Williams give it their all, to general glee, Winkler seeming to channel a hypermanic Edwina Currie in her prime.
The footman Robert (Katy Owen) becomes an elfin, broadly Welsh lad, tearing cheekily around and, in opening scenes, startlingly discussing his mother’s menopause symptoms over the phone to the lodge-keeper (“bit of a dryness in ‘er tuppence”). She’s very funny too. Danvers – Emily Raymond – is perhaps not quite as terrifying as one would hope, possibly due to modern sympathies towards her plainly lesbian passion: but having her entrances heralded by a flapping puppet cormorant is grand. So is the puppet dog, especially when he greets the terrified new bride with a nose up the crotch.
Not that she is terrified by the end. Imogen Sage is a real find, as tremulous and cotton-frocked and virginal as you could wish, but hardening and sexing-up convincingly when she discovers the truth. It’s a genuinely striking transition. So, in its way, is the decline of Maxim – glorious Tristan Sturrock, who was the original lover in Brief Encounter. He has just the casual, haughty, scornful affability and moody hawkish demeanour of a romantic hero in the 1930’s mould. As they say, you would, wouldn’t you? Even though you’d definitely regret it in the end.
His bride doesn’t: even in the genuinely dark,shivery moment when the corpse is raised and laid to rest amid shifting suspicions. The school parties around us shuddered with pleasure. So did I.
Box office 0844 871 7651 to 21 March
then TOURING nationwide to 19 Sept – Kneehigh tour dates on http://tinyurl.com/lqvo5jo