As the stage production of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers embarks on its second national tour, culminating in a run at the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, Vicky Edwards catches up with Director Emma Rice to find out more about the class of 2020…
Produced by Olivier and Tony Award-winning producer David Pugh and officially licensed by Enid Blyton Entertainment, a division of Hachette Children’s Group (HCG), the success of Malory Towers on its maiden voyage last year meant that a ‘second term’ was inevitable. Sure enough, the show is off on a second national tour, concluding with a summer run at the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Even better, the stage adaptation of this original post war ‘Girl Power’ story (the books have thrilled readers ever since the first story was published in 1946 and are still hugely popular with a modern readership), has been enthusiastically received by a broad demographic. Men, women and children of all ages have all taken the musical tale of high jinks at a Cornish boarding school to their hearts.
“There is plenty for boys and men in Malory Towers and it was wonderful to see so many of them in the audience loving it. But it really is a show for absolutely everyone,” says Emma Rice, admitting that she has rewritten the script for this second tour.
“Shows always evolve, so when you give it a bit of time and watch the video again you see more. Second time around you get to use your resources really wisely and squeeze even more love out of it.”
Love and laughter, I suggest?
“Oh yes, definitely! In Malory Towers comedy and tragedy sit neatly and happily next to each other, but it is like a perfect sit-com; a perfect set of archetypal characters that fizz off each other like mercury on water. I call it my happy Lord of the Flies.”
As for the class of 2020, Emma is delighted with her ‘new girls’.
“You always love the people you make a show with, but a new cast is always exciting because you know so much more. I’ve got the most magnificent team of young women and we’re going to have a lot of fun.”
In Malory Towers the characters are not perfect, but for the most part their intentions are good. And, as the grandmother who sat next to me when I saw the show in Oxford last year observed, the kindness, energy and hope of their world is a much-needed balm just now.
“It also speaks to the child in us all; the child that wanted to get rid of its pesky parents in order to hang out with mates, make great friendships and understand itself,” says Emma.
“Our Malory Towers is for everyone who fancies going on a great adventure without any adults telling you not to.”
The adventures are accompanied by glorious music. Initially wanting the music to all be in keeping with that of the girl bands of the day such as The Andrews Sisters, Emma found the simple narrative of these original songs weren’t right for every part of her story.
“So I started writing my own lyrics and working with my composer. Now it’s like two oceans meeting. We have songs of the time blending with more folk-based compositions – and it works a treat.
“As for the dancing, our choreographer Allister David is proper old school. At times it feels like you’re seeing a genuine 1940s musical. I wanted my Malory Towers to be like Busby Berkeley, but in an earthy, feminist way!”
In Emma’s retelling of the Malory Towers stories there is also a definite nod to the time the books were written in.
“It does reach out to the past and reference the war,” she acknowledges. “That generation had the cloud of war over them and I think that it is really important that this generation remembers that.
“In some ways the show is a thank you letter; a thank you letter to my grandad who fought in the war and to my gran who brought up two kids with no money.
“Also to those who in the post-war period said war wouldn’t happen again and built a national health service. It is frightening at the moment and it feels as if we are a long way away from those lessons. We have bullying at the highest levels of our society and it’s being accepted. In Malory Towers we watch the girls dealing with bullying, but still being kind. They want to understand the bully and help her.”
Moving on to chat about the animation (my lips are sealed – go see for yourself), Emma teases: “There is a real cliff hanger just before the interval. We have just been rehearsing that bit today and it’s like Ben Hur!”
Once a show is up and running, a director’s work is largely done. Emma, however, likes to nip back as often as possible to see how things are going.
“It is definitely a happy return to that neck of the woods for me, as we visited Manchester with Malory Towers last year. I’m sure we will get a similarly warm welcome in Salford.”
Producer David Pugh pops in and I ask him for his thoughts on the show. Replying that his love of the Malory Towers stories made the decision to put them on stage very easy, he adds:
“I read the books at the age of 14, after my sister left the book on the sideboard – I loved book five where the girls put on a pantomime. I am really delighted to be producing Malory Towers on stage and bringing it to Salford for the summer holidays,” he tells me.
Emma has previously said that she was unremarkable at school but that she is a great poster girl for the long game.
“I was very invisible at school,” she insists. “I really was magnificently underachieving. I survived school. My lovely dad always said life gets better and I hung on to that. Then I burst out of school and dyed my hair and came in to Sixth Form College as a punk. Malory Towers is a fantasy. It’s not my experience.”
Fantasy or not, I tell her as we prepare to say goodbye, her show sure does lift the heart and give the ribs a mighty tickle.
The once magnificent underachiever grins in response.
“It’s a cool show, but it’s not about being cool. Yeah. It’s a hot-blooded cool show!”
It is. And an A-star one at that.