Review: Rebecca at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

Rebecca at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham / Photo: Steve Tanner

Rebecca at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham / Photo: Steve Tanner - Credit: Archant

After watching du Maurier’s psychological thriller brought to the stage, Katie Jarvis is afraid; very afraid… but mainly of reactions to her review, to be honest with you. (PS: the Everyman audiences are loving it.)

So. On the coach with the theatre group, coming back from Rebecca, everyone is buzzing with how brilliant the evening was. “Fantastic entertainment!” “Utterly gripping”. And then the dreaded question. “What did you think, Katie?”

I’m not entirely sure how dangerous theatre groups crossed can be. For a second, I picture that scene in Shaun of the Dead, where an angry mob gathers outside the Winchester Tavern - me inside with a lone rifle - clearly not about to be mollified by a pint of best and a packet of pork scratchings.

“Eu-uu-ell,” I say, looking keenly around the coach for any possible barrel hatch elevators. “It wasn’t really, umm, Rebecca, was it?”

There’s a pause before several people carefully explain to me that turning a book into a stage production is never easy; and that it’s always going to be very different.

Ok. But why do it, then? Why not do something else entirely? If you want a production of camp comedy, pantomime bangs, Olivia Newton-John Grease-type, cigarette-puffing, Sandy-transformations, don’t choose an iconic, dark, brooding, tightly-plotted masterpiece where any giggle is a nervous tic on the brink of a breakdown.

To me, it’s like booking for a Mozart Requiem and discovering, at the last minute, that it’s been replaced by An Evening with Russell Brand.

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So I’m being unkind – there were fabulous things about this production. But, you see, don’t mess with it. Don’t mess with it because I love Rebecca; I feel possessive about Rebecca: the only book that’s ever wrong-footed me twice. So shocked me with its labyrinthine twists and turns that I could barely read on. So embarrassed me with its masterful, cringe-worthy, fancy-dress scene that nothing real-life could throw at me could ever equal that moment of fictional emotional horror. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then get a copy instantly. The point of this production, though, was that it pretty much purely spoke to aficionados of the book. If you hadn’t read it, you wouldn’t get it.)

Kneehigh Theatre’s production begins wonderfully sinisterly; Rebecca, the ghost who haunts this ‘study in jealousy’, floats down from above, claiming her watery grave at the heart of the stage from which she controls her posthumous story. The gracious portals of Manderley form the backdrop of the action – but inherent in their grandeur is decay: the floor is cracked; the woodwork peeled back to plaster and lath.

And then a roaring 20s’ party breaks out. There’s Lizzie Winkler as a glorious Beatrice; Andy Williams, her portly, faintly ridiculous but good-hearted husband; and Robert, the fervent servant – utterly hilariously played by Katy Owen (“She’s got hot flushes and a bit of a dryness in ‘er tuppence”). Superbly funny. Into this comic brilliance walks the gauchely naïve second Mrs de Winter (Imogen Sage) and her older, utterly tormented husband Max (Tristan Sturrock). But, to be honest, what strikes you, away from du Maurier’s first-person narration, is Max’s mundanity.

Yet! Hang on a minute! He cannot be mundane! That’s the whole point. The moral outrage at the beating centre of this story has to be assuaged somehow.

And Mrs dW? Well, in this production, she is, at times, Pollyanna; at other times, Sandy from Grease (amazingly, in the transformation scene, she drags on her first cigarette without even a hint of a wheeze). And, at other times still, she is, admittedly, perfect.

“Your hair… Try sweeping it behind your ears,” suggests worldly Beatrice. “…Oh no. That’s worse.”

While Mrs Danvers (Emily Raymond), the necessary evil at the heart of the drama, is simply too two-dimensional, Kneehigh. She might make puppies into coats in another life; but, here, she doesn’t cut that menacing, murderous threat that warps this story from love to hate.

And then there was the music. Beautiful, haunting music that tore at your heart and tossed your emotions like flotsam. Loved it. But the sea shanties? I get that they couldn’t stage the sea; or the Happy Valley; the Cornish landscape with its streams and carpets of azaleas. But.

That’s the first half. Then there’s the interval. And, at some point in the interval, having seen the length of the ice-cream queue, somebody from the cast reads the book and realises they’re way off beam. So, with barely 45 minutes left, they panic-cram the actual storyline into a rushed, confusing web of quickly-presented ideas that make up in bangs and flashes what they lack in emotion. That and Mrs de Winter doing strange forward rolls. What was all that about?

So, my bad. As I say, I was the wrong person to review this because it’s Rebecca. And I love Rebecca. The unfunny, unsettling, psychological brilliance of a novel where, if someone ever laughs, they regret it instantly.

And I know that pretty much everyone else in the entire world probably disagrees with me. Which is why I’m currently behind the bar, in a disused pub, a Winchester rifle clutched in my sweaty hands.


Kneehigh Theatre’s production of Rebecca is running at the Everyman from April 20 - Saturday, April 25

The Everyman Theatre is at Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ, box office 01242 572573;