Rebecca by Kneehigh at Richmond Theatre – Review

*Originally written for A Younger Theatre*

Rebecca - Kneehigh

Kneehigh’s dream of Manderley is fused deep with its Cornish roots, singing of the sea and haunted by a surreal shipwreck which buries Rebecca’s boat deep in the set. Its sunken boards literally become integrated into the dilapidated halls of Manderley, just as Rebecca’s ghost treads its rooms.

Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘study in jealousy’ – famously adapted for film by Hitchcock – is a master tale of suspense, love affairs and villainy. Hidden away deep on the Cornish coast, the great house of Manderley is fixated upon for the town’s excitement, news and glamour – or it was under Rebecca de Winter’s cool influence. Maxim de Winter’s (Tristan Sturrock) new wife remains unnamed, elusively under the spell of her eponymous predecessor, and must face the same – but now unsought – attention.

All the Kneehigh motifs are here: a pair of dancing red shoes, a chandelier, Cornish seas, live folk music, an ensemble of onlookers. The taste of the ocean was strong in the delightful chorus of fishermen’s sea shanties which punctuated the story. But it wasn’t a patch on previous shows like Tristan and Yseult, or Brief Encounter. For a company that trades in doing the theatrically unexpected with well-known tales, Emma Rice’s adaptation lacked spectacle and surprise.

And where it did, it felt at odds. The new Mrs de Winter, played as beautifully innocent and timid by Imogen Sage, was given a 21st century makeover (or that was Rice’s aim). She underwent a rapid – almost instantaneous -transformation in the second half which seemed forced rather than revelatory. Not quite the modern moment Rice intended.

That being said, there are some nice touches, particularly in Leslie Travers’s design. The letter ‘R’ is inscribed boldly on the vases that (a rather benign) Mrs Danvers (Emily Raymond) uses to arrange the flowers for the fancy dress ball, for instance. The new Mrs de Winters’s dress for the ball is revealed with real shock factor. A fireplace is ingeniously struck together with a large candelabra and driftwood.

Bea and Giles in Rebecca

There are excellent performances from the loud and garish Beatrice (Lizzie Winkler) and whisky-soda-drinking Giles (Andy Williams), whose roisterous meddling and hilarious Charleston interludes provide light relief from anxiety and jealousy. It is Katy Owen, as the young footman Robert, who is the real comic delight. She performs something like an incredibly bouncy Irish jig to much applause, flies around the set like a salt wind from the sea whenever the telephone goes off, and provides far too detailed a description of her mother’s ‘change of life’.

Du Maurier’s novel is gothic through and through; Hitchcock certainly dealt in fear and victimisation. But Kneehigh’s Rebecca lacked the ingredients to create a real aura of terror. The antagonists, Mrs Danvers and Jack Favell (Ewan Wardop), were barely cause for trepidation – making the new Mrs de Winter seem agonisingly petty. Everything was worked out at the end almost as quickly as an episode of Poirot, with much of Du Maurier’s subtlety lost. The party scene – well there wasn’t one, just its aftermath. I personally had high hopes for some impressive costumes and a little more craziness. But it was the final moments of the play – here even more ambiguous than in the novel and utterly so for someone unfamiliar with the original story – that were impressively anti-climatic.

Rebecca is playing at Richmond Theatre until 21 March and then on tour. For more information and tickets, see Kneehigh’s website.

Photo: Steve Tanner