REBECCA at Charing Cross Theatre
“its sights are undoubtedly set on a bigger space”
“Rebecca” the musical has taken quite a while to come to our shores. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic novel of the same name, it was written by Michael Kunze (book and lyrics) and Sylvester Levay (music). When it opened more than a decade and a half ago in Vienna it played to sold out houses for over three years before crossing the oceans to Japan and back again to Finland, Hungary, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Serbia, Romania, Czechia and Russia. In the meantime, The English audience’s appetite was whetted by Emma Rice’s chillingly magical touring production which, in true Kneehigh fashion, was part musical, part fairy-tale, part horror fantasy.
High expectations lie in wait at the gates of Manderley for the musical, translated by Kunze and Christopher Hampton. Alejandro Bonatto’s production is quite fearless in the face of anticipation, so much so that the ambition and vision of the piece feels initially at odds with the choice of venue. With an eighteen-piece orchestra, twenty-two songs and an all singing all dancing ensemble, its sights are undoubtedly set on a bigger space. But for now, it has settled in for the autumn and it feels like this very English tale has come home.
Staying faithful to the novel it centres around “I” – the first-person narrator, known only as the second Mrs. de Winter. Having met the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo she all too rapidly becomes his wife and moves to his grand estate in Cornwall. Washed up in a ghost story without the ghosts, the new bride grapples with the oppressive presence of de Winter’s first wife – Rebecca – who died in mysterious circumstances the year before. Exacerbated by Mrs Danvers – the cold, overbearing housekeeper – she grows increasingly obsessed with the beautiful first wife. The suspense builds, secrets are revealed, and intrigues unravelled.
“The melodies are quite beautiful when needed; and stirring whenever required”
Like the novel, the musical opens with “I” famously saying (though in this case singing – and paraphrasing presumably for scanning purposes) ‘last night I dreamt of Manderley’. We immediately get a taste of the sumptuous score, and the quality of the singing voices on display. The atmosphere is created, but then somewhat dismantled as events and the central romance progress at breakneck speed. Songs come and go, often ending too soon. Crescendos and climaxes bounce off the walls leaving little space for true characterisation. While Richard Carson’s Maxim de Winter is quite rooted in his awkward and arrogant secrecy, Lauren Jones’ “I” has the more pronounced arc; even though we have to wait until after interval to witness Jones’ transformation from timid outsider to gutsy go-getter who can rightfully grab what is hers. When she looks like stealing the show, it is snatched away by Kara Lane as Mrs Danvers, with a soul of steel and voice of velvet. The duo makes compelling watching, particularly during act two’s opening number ‘Rebecca’. The gauntlet is thrown, and the stage is set. The second half of the show is indeed several notches up from the first act, and the mists of darkness and deviousness break away from the artificiality of dry ice, to form something more tangible and emotive.
The bleak Cornish setting is evoked through David Seldes’ lighting and Matt Powell’s projections, with the old school theatricality of Nicky Shaw’s sets, deftly manoeuvred and transformed by the ensemble cast. An ensemble that is equally as important as the leading players, and given several rousing numbers that set the scene and drive the plot. It is more melodrama than psychological insight, but then again – is that a bad thing? We’re not looking for Daphne du Maurier’s literary subtleties. We want the essence, which is what is achieved. The melodies are quite beautiful when needed; and stirring whenever required. Sometimes, however, it is superfluous to requirements, and therefore stretches the show beyond its natural length. A show that, in turn, is pushing at the walls of the space. The true vision is confined for now, but it is still quite thrilling. The heart may be relatively unmoved, but the senses are indeed stirred.
REBECCA at Charing Cross Theatre
Reviewed on 18th September 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Mark Senior
Previously reviewed at this venue: