There are doubtless many who know a lot more about Malory Towers than I do, and hold it dearer to their hearts. While I read Third Year at Malory Towers many, many times (and oddly owned several copies of it) I never read any of the rest of the series. But still the thought of the books fill me with nostalgia – both for my own childhood, and for another on the rose-tinted Cornish coast, filled with pinafores and hijinks, drama and midnight feasts.
Perhaps the way that fantasies of this post-war boarding school weave their way into modern young minds is what inspired the framing device of Emma Rice’s production. A modern schoolgirl (played by Rose Shalloo, later becoming the nervy Mary Lou) gets knocked out after her book is stolen by a bully, and transported back to her beloved towers. It’s a shame that this kicks off the show, as it feels a little awkwardly done, a stilted confrontation lacking any a real sense of young people interacting onstage.
In contrast with this broadly-drawn look at modern youth, the 1940s world that we are then drawn into is full of the ingredients that make Emma Rice’s shows so frequently exciting. There’s a menagerie of live music from many different eras and styles, no character walks somewhere when they can flip instead, and the back wall is covered in creative animated projections that the characters interact with. This is a world almost completely populated by children – the teachers from the books exist for the most part only as absent characters mentioned as inspirations or approbations. The exception to this is Miss Grayling’s appearances as a projected silhouette, voiced by Sheila Hancock – an approach which I found delightfully weird, giving the headmistress an almost spectral effect.
The problem is that for a world populated entirely by children (even jolly 40s ones) the first half feels very subdued and restrained. There may be music and dancing but it is apportioned in neat interludes between scenes, which do well at setting up place and character with wit and fun, but never have a real sense of excitement or tension.
While the Malory Towers books can be comforting, there are plenty of events in the stories with a real sense of peril and risk. This show’s plot has a lot of elements which could have you on the edge of your seat – violence, fear, lies and distrust – but none of it really hits home. I think in fact the muted feeling of the first half might be less down to the books’ content and more its form. It doesn’t really feel like the script does enough – especially at the beginning – is to transform the episodic vignettes of a book you can pick up and put down at will into a gripping live show. All the ingredients may be there but the cake doesn’t quite rise.
Still, the show hits its stride in the second half, and the scene immediately following the interval is GLORIOUS
*Spoiler alert because I just want to yell about all the great stuff in this one scene*
A starlit sky! The Cornish coast! A girl hangs perilously from the edge! Another tries to save her but is not strong enough! The music swells! A Horse is sent to Fetch Help! The bully sings an evil melody! After all is resolved they have a PICNIC IN THE RAIN! I LOVED IT SO MUCH!
As a combination of a beloved childhood icon, and a theatremaker who has created some of the most popular and exciting work of the last 10 years expectations are bound to be high. And while it may not always meet them, there is still plenty in the show to please fans of either, neither, or both.
The performers are all incredible (and incredibly multi-talented), the music is captivating, and there is wit and warmth in all of the interactions between the girls. Whether in its ghostly headmistress or its midnight rescues, Mallory Towers is absolutely best when it embraces its simultaneous absurdity and sincerity – and while that might not be as often as I would like, it’s still a jolly good show for a beautiful summer evening.
Malory Towers plays at the Passenger Shed, Bristol, until 19th August. More info here.