Last night, I dreamed of Manderley – well, not exactly – but I was invited to the London premiere of the European musical by Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay, based on one of my favourite books.
Daphne du Maurier’s spooky run of novels (My Cousin Rachel, Frenchman’s Creek, Jamaica Inn and of course, Rebecca) have all received numerous adaptations for stage and screen since they were written in the first half of the 20th century.
A musical version of Rebecca could go either way: work well, as Jane Eyre has done; or sink fast, as Gone With The Wind did in 2008.
The novel’s (anti)hero, Maxim de Winter, falls into roughly the same Gothic romance trope as Rochester, Rhett Butler, or even Heathcliff. He falls between brooder and abuser.
After the death by drowning of his beautiful and popular wife, the Rebecca of the title, a vivacious and vindictive ghost of the past, Maxim (Richard Carson) seeks solace in Monte Carlo, where he meets the mousey and improvised paid companion of a vulgar American gossip.
As the novel is narrated by this woman, who becomes the second Mrs de Winter (Lauren Jones), we never know her name, and all adaptations, including this one, have wisely followed that convention.
We open with projections on a white curtain – better and clearer if it had been a screen but we get a sense of water, and of a young woman dreaming of Manderley and something she wishes to forget.
Monte Carlo is dealt with quickly with a breakneck courtship but believable chemistry. Although both Carson and Jones have powerful voices, the 18-piece orchestra sometimes drowns out the vocals of ‘I’ and the lyrical nuances throughout.
Manderley itself is as opulent as you can suggest with lighting, projections, a bit of furnishing, and a relatively small stage. A set (by Nicky Shaw) of folding walls creates a range of locations throughout the show.
The servants lining up to greet their new mistress are snobbish and peevish, and housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Kara Lane) is so completely wrapped up in her love for Rebecca she teeters on the verge of madness.
Keeping fairly close to the source novel, there are occasional tonal slips in what is meant to be a chilling psychological horror story.
Jack Favell, cousin and lover of Manderley’s dead mistress, is reduced to a music hall comic turn, while Maxim’s sister and brother-in-law have an interlude about the country life which seems misplaced.
Maxim himself is captured in all his complexity – charming, manipulative, full of temper and trauma, but capable eventually to open himself to the love of his new bride. It’s a difficult role to pull off to modern eyes.
She (“I”) is quiet at first, like Jane Eyre before her, but with an inner core of strength which takes flight in act two as she confronts both Mrs Danvers and Favell, a tigress fighting for her husband and their reputation.
Characterised by sung dialogue at times, Rebecca is a complicated but interesting show that tries to reach out through the orchestrations and translated lyrics (by Kunze and Christopher Hampton).
It definitely feels as if something is lost in translation, yet the melodies sweep over now and then, and Lane’s Danvers catches the unhinged gloom of the piece – her exit is gloriously lit.
Technically, a dry ice moment aimed to draw in the audience in the front stalls by adding atmosphere had the opposite effect of overpowering by smoke and irritating by underlying the obvious.
Did I like this show? As a devotee of the book, I appreciated what it was trying to do but didn’t feel the emotional engagement I expected. For those who don’t know the novel, this could be confusing despite its length (2 hr 15 plus interval).
Does it work as a musical? While it is, thankfully, no Gone With The Wind, it is currently missing something despite some strong performances. It could do with quietly removing a number or two and is too bombastic for its venue.
I need to mention the ensemble that boasted several stand-outs, and the fine movement choreography (by Ron Howell) at key crisis points.
I’m giving Alejandro Bonatto’s London premiere of Rebecca 3 stars. I wasn’t lost in it, but spotted little glints here and there I enjoyed.
Image credit: Mark Senior