Daphne Du Maurier’sRebecca has been a favourite book for as long as I can remember so it can be difficult to accept an interpretation of a much-loved story.
If I hadn’t known the book so well then I may have enjoyed more the take by Kneehigh’s artistic director, Emma Rice .
Rebecca, now touring the UK, opened at the Wycombe Swan tonight, and, on the whole, it’s a jolly good (and jolly strange) thriller – but it isn’t the Rebecca I once knew. Crikey, it even contained the F word. I don’t remember that.
Put out of your mind the now classic 1940 Hitchcock masterpiece with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, and consign Nigel Havers’ modern play of 2004 to the furthest most reaches of your memory.
Kneehigh, always a company willing to push boundaries and deliver innovative and imaginative theatre, has somehow turned a dark, brooding Gothic horror into, at times, a farce.
It’s unnerving hearing so much laughter and seeing surreal comedy in a story where none should be. I’m not saying that as a criticism, because it wholly fits Rice’s adaptation, but it wrong-foots you if you’re not expecting it.
Tristan Sturrock’s tortured Maxim De Winter, owner of the rambling pile that is Manderley, delivers an intense performance.
He’s a brooding mass of emotions, snapping the head off his innocent second wife for wearing his first wife’s (absolutely stunning) evening dress, grinning like a little boy lost and then, crushed, whimpering and begging for her help.
But what is hard to take is seeing the pained and guilt-ridden De Winter suddenly appearing in a band to play the bass (with the evil Mrs Danvers accompanying while dressed as a maid). It throws the brain totally off kilter.
And this is Kneehigh’s quirkiness. There’s a dreamlike quality to the story-telling.
We see how the second Mrs De Winter battles to save her relationship from the ghosts of marriages past but it’s inter-cut with comic turns from an unhinged Welsh footman called Robert (played by Katy Owen) and larger-than life performances from Lizzie Winkler as Maxim’s racy sister, Bea, and her drunk of a husband Giles (Andy Williams). Even Frith the butler (Richard Clews) is played for laughs.
I much preferred Owen’s second role as the simple Ben, who lives on the beach, sees everything, but gives nothing away.
And between scenes the ensemble pick up instruments and sing traditional-sounding sea shanties, or they’re constructing or disassembling Leslie Travers’ impressive set.
Then there’s the puppet dog, Jasper, and the puppet birds (I assume a homage to The Birds). All a bit weird.
Emily Raymond, dressed in black, her hair slicked back, a slash of blood-red lipstick and a snarl on her lips, makes a fine and sinister Mrs Danvers (the housekeeper from hell).
She’s aided and abetted by some excellent lighting (from Tim Lutkin) which throws harsh and menacing shadows onto the crumbling walls of Manderley.
The first night audience, who were also fans of the book, were ahead of the action all the way, gasping and quietly murmuring before the shocks came.
It won’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment. This is a thrilling ride with some momentous twists that will keep you guessing the outcome right until the last scene.
Imogen Sage as Mrs De Winter, overdoes the stupid little girl act (helped by a wardrobe of the most awful prim frocks) but comes into her own before the denouement.
But Sturrock is fascinating to watch. There’s a bit of a young Peter O’Toole in there with his fine aquiline nose, finely hewn cheekbones, steely square jaw and beautifully enunciated delivery. A perfect 1940s anti-hero.
Rebecca runs at the Wycombe Swan until Saturday before continuing to tour.