They began with a playful, joyous adaptation of the Angela Carter novel from which they took their name – and this month Wise Children, the Bristol-based theatre company formed by Kneehigh’s former artistic director Emma Rice, return with another colourful, richly re-imagined take on a 20th century classic.
The company’s sophomore production is an adaptation of Malory Towers, Enid Blyton’s six-novel series following life at the titular girls’ boarding school in the years after World War II. The tales are based on life at Benenden School, the Kentish boarding school that Blyton’s own daughter attended, and which relocated during the war to the Cornish seaside. The series follows the protagonist, the redoubtable Darrell Rivers, on her adventures and experiences during six years of boarding school.
Darrell is starting school with an eager mind and fierce heart. Unfortunately, she also has a quick temper. Can she learn to tolerate the infuriating Gwendoline Lacey, or cultivate the friendship of the kind-hearted Sally Hope? Can she save the school play and rescue he terrified Mary Lou from the grip of a raging storm? If she can do these things anywhere, she will do them at Malory Towers.
“Nostalgic, naughty and perfect for now, Malory Towers is the original ‘Girl Power’ story,” is Emma’s introduction to the show, which promises high jinks, high drama and high spirits, all set to live music and animation. A show for girls, boys and all us grown-up children who still dream of midnight feasts and Cornish clifftops.
Wise Children premiere their version in Brunel’s atmospheric, vaulted, Grade 1-listed Passenger Shed next to Temple Meads, which they will transform into their very own Malory Towers for the summer holidays. After that, the show tours to Cambridge, York, Exeter, Manchester and Oxford.
Emma and company have made one important tweak to the action: they have added a second storyline, following life at a school in 2019. “The story starts in a school very much in the here and now, before moving back to the 1940s/50s world of Malory Towers, and finally returning to today,” explains Lez Brotherston, the show’s set and costume designer, whose 35-year career has taken in 1984’s classic film Letter to Brezhnev, a slew of dance, theatre, opera, musicals and film with master choreographer Matthew Bourne and others, and Olivier and Tony Awards for Cinderella and Swan Lake respectively.
“This is because, in our version, Malory Towers is a fantasy world for our heroine, who is being bullied at school here and now in 2019. It is a world into which she disappears for much of the play.”
So how have Lez and co. marked out these two very different worlds? Have they gone for a vividly recreated 1950s school, and a recognisably 2019 counterpart? “I’d say our design choices are a little bit more stylised than that. You’ll be able to get each period from the clothes – the set, on the other hand, is a kind of abstracted version of Malory Towers, all one colour, upon which we project lots of things. Our set is like a vast 3D projection screen…”
It’s not the first time that Lez has worked with Emma – the duo have collaborated previously on various Kneehigh shows including 2011’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, as well as various projects for The Globe, and Orpheus for the English National Opera. Kindred creative spirits?
“Emma is a remarkable person to work with,” Lez enthuses. “Just full of creative energy. It’s a different way of working, with her. I often work with Matthew Bourne and his company, New Adventures. We have a much more structured way of working – the New Adventures shows are so big that they have to be planned well in advance. The story and scenic elements, and the visual narrative, are all set.
“With Emma, on the other hand, everything is a little bit more freeform. I find it much better to give her a playground to play in, and to just let things evolve in rehearsals.”
It looks as though audiences of all ages are in for a visual, aural, all-round sensory treat from Wise Children’s Malory Towers? “I hope it’s going to be a bit of an event, rather than just pottering into a theatre and sitting down and watching a play,” Lez reflects.
“We have to build the auditorium, stage and set in the Passenger Shed, so I think it will feel a little bit different, a bit exciting – the kind of event where you don’t know quite what you’re in for.”
Malory Towers is at the Passenger Shed, Temple Meads from July 19-Aug 18. For more info, visit bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/malory-towers
Read more: Review: Wise Children, Bristol Old Vic