Chris Eldon Lee reviews Kneehigh Theatre Company’s production of ‘Rebecca’, which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 2nd May.
Kneehigh Theatre really ought to change their name. How about to “Head and Shoulders”? For that is where they stand above the regular creative companies in the UK. Their shows are far from flawless (including this one) but for inventiveness and excitement, they are hard to beat.
Coming from Cornwall it must have been only a matter of time before they set their sights on Daphne du Maurier’s mysterious novel “Rebecca”. The audience seemed to know the story inside out. The very mention of “the dress” brought gasps from them as they contemplated the inevitable ballroom confrontation. The newly wed Mrs de Winter has been tricked into wearing a gown that her drowned predecessor once worn on a similar occasion. It’s a stunning moment, as she stands translucent at the top of the staircase. Her husband Maxim goes ballistic – and we headed for the ice creams, murmuring approval at how well it’s all going.
Designer Leslie Travers has submerged herself in an allegorical set deeply reminiscent of those blurry, washed out photos of the sunken Titanic. A holed rowing boat floats down to nestle in the wreck – but the sea-stained mannequin doll that is supposed to represent Rebecca is a travesty … and there are more to come.
Du Maurier purists have been bothered by the injected, off-the-wall humour – but this is theatre, and I was glad of it all.
I loved the jokey drum-and-base Charleston dance routines, the sight gags, the irrepressible Welsh footman Robert (jauntily played by the slight, slicked-back Katy Owen) and Jasper the Dog – the only knee high character in the show who puts his nose where he shouldn’t and only wags his tail when the puppeteer kicks him. Is Emma Rice perhaps having a dig at her company’s origins?
The humour also came in handy when the over-the-top, flamboyant Lizzie Winkler (as Beatrice) had a pretty disastrous wardrobe malfunction. The fact that many of the cast are already sending themselves up allowed her to laugh her way out of it in keeping.
The dark heart of the story is lovingly preserved in the big set pieces. Tristan Sturrock commands as the guilt-ridden husband and his confession to his new wife is harrowing and haunting. She is played by the willowy, waif-like Imogen Sage as a more modern miss. You grieve for her fragility when she drops the heirloom vase (haven’t we all been clumsy in a strange house?) but her handling of the subsequent swing of power from him to her builds brilliantly.
There is a flaw in the original too. The denouement requires the introduction of a brand new character, which always feels a bit of a cheat. But Andy Williams’ rudimentary coastguard’s investigation has true tension – even though we know he’s getting it wrong. He’s a bit like Plod doing a Poirot payoff, which just adds to the absurdity.
Director Emma Rice is a tightrope walker…balancing between reverence and ridicule. I’ve yet to see her fall off…and Rebecca is both safe – and satired – in her hands.
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