The trouble that comes from adapting something with such an iconic history as Rebecca – in all its incarnations – is how to approach what has gone before. How to dress your set, which once was lit by the “Master of Suspense“? How to breathe new life into one of the English world’s most famous opening lines? Revivals and re-imaginings can, if done badly, feel utterly pointless – dancing on the graves of past giants, without leaving any mark of their own.
Happily, Kneehigh Theatre have managed to pull off something wonderful – a classic thriller, all secret corners and whispers behind doors, stuffed anew with belly-laughs. The injection of humour – mainly centred around Maxim’s ghastly sister and brother-in-law – feels completely natural, largely thanks to the superb chemistry of the entire cast. And yet, a little levity takes nothing away from the darkness at the centre of Manderley, and the trap that the new Mrs de Winter appears to have walked into. The set certainly threatens; the mesmerising opening image of a floating underwater damsel takes root in the crooked country house, the floors and stairs weathered by age and salt in equal measure. The house feels alive and is, at least initially, as unwelcoming of its new mistress as the looming Danvers.
There’s also fantastic use of music and dance, with adapter and director Emma Rice managing to expertly combine two very different moods. The haunted Cornish theme of the original novel is played up and enhanced with a scrappy live band and a selection of sea shanties; whilst the distracting, illusionary jazz of the 20s and 30s dazzles in a series of joyously choreographed swing dances.
With so much to dazzle before the interval, it’s a shame that the plot of the second half occasionally drags. After excellent pacing in the early scenes, the production changes the lengthy inquiry into Rebecca’s death to a quicker, grave-side investigation. It fits in well with the sense of mysticism but, sadly, lacks the natural flow of the first half. Revelations feel less weighty and character shifts feel a little rushed. And yet, the final, blazing image – Mrs de Winter, wreathed in fire and her newly discovered sense of self – sends chills to the spine. Maxim de Winter, one imagines, may not be in for such a quiet life as he hopes.