HOME Theatre, Manchester; Tuesday 24th September, 2019
In 1946, celebrated children’s author Enid Blyton published the first of what would go on to be six books about a girl’s boarding school in Cornwall: an imposing edifice on a beautiful clifftop where teachers Miss Potts and Miss Grayling would oversee the transformation of young girls into fine young women – that school was known as Malory Towers.
Malory Towers the stage play by the Wise Children theatre company picks up the characters and essential themes of the books in order to set up a captivating two-hour long stage spectacle – a show that comfortably looks and feels like the manifestation of a classic, Blyton-esque childhood adventure.
The cast of seven all play schoolgirls, individual characters looking to establish themselves as they adjust to being thrust together into a newly formed micro-community. The girls share a dormitory and attend the same lessons, they live in a world of midnight feasts and exhilarating clifftop dives into icy seas – in many ways an idyllic schooling experience.
The moodscapes created by this show are extraordinary. Principally, the performance exudes an upbeat, jovial mood of childish fun and games, just as an Enid Blyton story might – there is plenty of skipping, singing, dancing, leaping, tumbling & somersaulting; all wrapped up in very powerful notions of friendship, honesty and loyalty.
Even visually, the Enid Blyton referential frame has been cleverly captured: the school is presented as being some mysterious Scooby-Doo-like ancient castle with imposing towers overlooking the sea. The wonderful, multi-purpose set with its projected animations fuels an evocative sense of intrigue as well as fear – as one of the girls rather comically points out: “it wasn’t built like a normal building, it just grew out of the souls of all the girls that have stayed here”.
But then lurking among the joviality of childhood innocence is a set of far more sinister themes. The spectre of the Second World War looms large throughout the plot – the opening scene is one of a group of girls heading from London to Cornwall on the train in order to start boarding school, but it could easily have been an evacuation during the war. And the grim realities of the adult world return with a vengeance later in the show when the brutal consequences of war lead to a horrifying tragedy for one of the girls.
The elegant balancing of comedy and tragedy might be where Malory Towers is most successful as a piece of theatre: the undesirable realities of the real, adult world are acknowledged but not necessarily explained, or explored; yet in contrast the children are expected to be self-policing, always seeking justification and explanation, always taking it upon themselves to be fair, honest, reliable – “never be fearful of the truth” is a particularly memorable line.
Hence, just as in most Enid Blyton books, the preachy, positive morality message wins through because the story clearly shows that, by being good, the kids can turn out alright.
The production is full of wonderful little touches, glorious little theatrical treats that just keep elevating the quality of the audience experience. A prime example would be the headmistress, who isn’t played by a human actor at all – instead she is presented as nothing more than an animated silhouette behind an office door that rarely opens – a simple little trick that plunges every single audience member back into the same state of reverence at this mysterious figure of authority that every single one of us marvelled at when we were young.
Malory Towers is a masterful piece of emotional engineering, a show which is charming in its absurd comicality, yet also incredibly moving in its depictions of tragedy and injustice. This is an elegantly crafted and beautifully presented two hours of escapist story-telling fantasy that showcases theatrical entertainment at its most pleasing.
Photography: Steve Tanner
|Visual pleasure||Incredible multi-purpose set that made use of projected animations to transform scenes in an instant. An incredible visual spectacle when combined with the efforts of the performing cast.||5|
|Auditory pleasure||Exquisite musical composition, and a live performance with piano, drums and harp that constituted a performance in itself. Each of the songs was sung so clearly and fit into the storyline perfectly, everything seemed to flow without obvious juncture.||5|
|Architecture & Theme||A relatively simple and straightforward plot involving children in a boarding school yet the emotional manipulation achieved is extraordinary, it was impossible to not get invested in what was happening to each character on stage.||5|
|Artistic delivery||Outstanding acting, singing and dancing performances from every single member of the cast, and also the musicians off stage. Towards the end, each individual personality began to shine through, an incredible achievement for a show with such a large cast of characters.||5|
|Overall impact||A perfect evening of entertainment at the theatre, an awe-inspiring mix of story telling and high artistry that generates a wonderfully compelling and evocative fantasy world.||5|
|0||Detrimental – This aspect of the performance was so bad that it made the overall experience worse|
|1||Weak – This aspect of the performance was poor|
|2||Adequate – This aspect of the performance was perfectly acceptable, though nothing special|
|3||Good – This aspect of the performance was above average, it pleased in some way|
|4||Excellent – This aspect of the performance was much better than normal, it was impressive|
|5||Awe-inspiring – This aspect of the performance was exceptional, new boundaries were pushed.|