Malory Towers – Oxford Playhouse

“Deliciously naughty”. The line that got the largest laugh, and one which summarises what was unexpectedly the most wonderful play I’ve seen in a long time.

At first I was worried that Malory Towers, the Enid Blyton series close to so many hearts, had been modernised by director Emma Rice. But the majority plot is comfortingly familiar in its post-war setting, simply framed with modern day school scenes which, if anything, help to engage the plethora of schoolchildren who must be seeing this production on its national tour.

The entire company is ridiculously talented, musically and otherwise – so much so that they make you forget that they’re fully grown adults. Each of them has their own moment to shine. Mirabelle Gremaud (playing Irene Dupont) is the definition of extraordinary: harp, ukulele, contortions and acrobatics all feature, alongside a rendition of Edith Piaf’s Mon Manege a Moi. Rebecca Collingwood (Gwendoline Lacey) is brilliant at being absolutely horrible, and managed to make her ballet-inspired solo simultaneously elegant and egotistical, sparking chuckles through her interactions with the pianist (“This is MY song!” etc). Renee Lamb as Alicia and Izuka Hoyle as Daryll were by far the strongest singers; not at all surprising seeing as they are both alumnae of the hit musical Six.

Rice’s production is the perfect example of how easy it is to be inclusive. How simple it is to introduce people to new concepts without scaremongering or othering. The whole thing is so diverse it makes me happy that it even exists – and perhaps most importantly, absolutely nothing about Malory Towers had to change for this to happen. Lamb and Hoyle are both women of colour; Bill Robinson, a tomboy in the original books by Enid Blyton, was refreshed by non-binary actor Vinnie Heaven – which makes perfect sense narratively and provides the perfect opportunity for the young people to encounter the concepts of non-binary and transgenderism in a normalised setting. Sign language was woven into some of the songs, mental health and shell shock provided a poignant denouement, and Francesca Mills’ dwarfism was 100% incidental and not a plot point whatsoever, all of which was so wonderful to see. Mills’ Sally Hope stole the show with her headstrong perfectionism, sending the audience into tears of laughter on multiple occasions. Her quip about being a man – “I imagine it’s just like being a woman, only easier and with more money” – earned a bloody well-deserved round of applause.

And the humour throughout the entire production left me sated in that happily-tired way you only get from a proper marathon of laughing. The frequency with which they refer to each other by their full names becomes a running joke, as does Sally’s over-exaggerated movements when she’s directing and producing the meta-play-within-a-play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The literal cliffhanger was a cheap joke but left us chortling nonetheless, and even small references like “don’t be a Pollock” meant there was something for everyone regardless of age.

It’s not just the actors that make this production such a success. Everything, from the set to the lighting to the school exercise book style programmes, was quintessentially Malory. The space was used cleverly as train, classroom, dorm room and clifftop. The projections were sweet – definitely childish, but it is a children’s show after all. And again, projections too were cleverly used for a chalk board and a silhouette of the headmistress.

There were a few tiny frustrations – flashlights were painfully bright when shone directly into the audience’s faces, and there never seemed to be enough of anything: only five beds and six school desks for a cast of seven meant that Irene ended up “sleeping” by chucking a pillow on her head as she sat at her harp.

But honestly, none of this mattered. I left smiling. I bloody loved it, the 8 year old in front of me loved it, and the 80 year old next to me loved it. I feel like thanking Emma Rice. She gives you, as the school song goes, women that the world can lean on.  No-one’s too old for Malory Towers.

 

By Catrin Haberfield

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