Malory Towers is the second production from Wise Children, the new theatre company headed by renowned director Emma Rice. A nostalgia-filled adaptation of children’s fiction may seem an odd choice for such an innovative group, but the wit and energy that fill every aspect of the show make it an entirely justified one.
For those not in the know (myself included as I had not read the books), Malory Towers is a series of books by Enid Blyton which follows the adventures of pupils at the eponymous girls’ boarding school, in post- World War II Cornwall. This new stage adaptation combines a talented cast, original songs, skilled direction and awesome set design to bring the hijinks to life.
Starting in a present-day school, made to feel like a ‘bog standard comp’, we see a number of pupils waiting outside the office of a ‘welfare assistant’. A fight breaks out when a bully picks on another girl for reading Malory Towers. As they wrestle for the book, against a chorus of other pupils yelling at them to stop, the Blyton fan gets knocked unconscious, and has a dream which transports her back in time to the era of the story. A rousing first number, complete with some astoundingly flexible choreography, re-casts the company into the mould of excited soon-to-be First Formers arriving at Paddington Station for their journey to the school. There, they encounter lessons, games and silliness that develop their character, according to the school’s ethos of producing ‘women the world can rely on’. The setting may be quaint, but Rice’s script and some new plot twists give the show just enough darkness to prevent it from becoming saccharine, while remaining charming and wholesome.
The cast are brilliant - so convincingly capturing the childish exuberance of jolly English eleven-year-olds that I was genuinely surprised to look in the programme and discover that they are all adults! In particular, Renée Lamb as Alicia Johns had an effervescent and likeable stage presence as she delivered cheesy joke after cheesy joke with great aplomb. Also amping up the comedy was Francesca Mills as the amusingly officious Sally Hope, whose timing for witty retorts rendered them completely hilarious. Rebecca Collingwood was pleasingly vile, with a sense of superiority that evoked Hermione Granger if she had a murderous streak, before the revelations of the script uncovered a more sympathetic side. All in all, each performer succeeded in giving distinctive personalities to their roles, while maintaining beautifully harmonious singing voices and fun, fluid movements. The combination of lovely songs and knowing humour go a long way to prove that you can have a nostalgic and even patriotic show that doesn’t just hark back to the ‘good old days before political correctness’, instead illustrating that the best of this era was about decency and seeing the best in people.
The show is a love letter to a more innocent time, brought home by the delightful set design which features animations in the style of hand-drawn cartoons, so that at times you feel immersed in a picturebook. The final leg of its tour sees it running in Oxford until Saturday, but tickets are deservedly flying off the shelves so I would urge you not to delay in booking!