July 27, 2008

Old Favourite Still Retains Its Mystique

I must confess to never having been an avid fan of Daphne du Maurier's Gothic novel, but Western College Players' production by Jill Nicholas makes out a strong case for it.

Particularly effective is the way in which she creates the tension between the past and the present, so that we are continually aware of the conflict between the new Mrs Maxim de Winter (whose Christian name we never learn) and her predecessor, the beautiful, passionate but degenerate Rebecca, who died before the story begins.

Rebecca is ever-present at Manderley, the de Winter home, with the vindictive Mrs Danvers missing no opportunity to praise her deceased mistress and belittle her new one.

Layers of suspense are laid until Maxim confesses to the murder of Rebecca.

After that episode the narrative changes direction, reveals secret after secret and becomes a thriller centred on clearing Maxim's name.

There is a fine set by Cliff Appleby and Geoff Coventry, but the success of any production of this tale depends very much on the actress playing the second Mrs de Winter.

Claire Roberts skilfully charts her journey from shy and naive companion, through bewilderment and despair, to final confidence and understanding with her husband.

Equally central is Maxim, the perfect English gentleman. It's a tricky role, and not even Nigel Havers fully mastered it when he toured the play in Plymouth three years ago.

All praise, then to Steve Baker, who develops from a man initially seeking someone to banish memories of the disastrous sham of his previous marriage to one at last able to acknowledge his genuine love.

Sarah Jones captures the obsessive jealousy of Mrs Danvers, but could exult more in her wickedness.

In a large cast, Tony Giles as estate agent Frank, Mark Storey as Max's brother-in-law Giles and Linus McCloskey as magistrate Colonel Julyan stand out, and Tim Rowley is the perfect butler.

An entertaining retelling of a favourite story, Rebecca continues at Plymouth's Drum Theatre until tonight.

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