Review: REBECCA, Charing Cross Theatre

The German language hit musical comes to London translated by Christopher Hampton in an underwhelming production that should have been a staged concert.

By: Sep. 19, 2023
Review: REBECCA, Charing Cross Theatre
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Review: REBECCA, Charing Cross Theatre It’s time to go to Manderley again; Charing Cross Theatre is hosting the British premiere of the acclaimed German-language musical Rebecca. Based on Daphne Du Maurier’s Gothic masterpiece of the same name, Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay’s work has been translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Alejandro Bonatto.

Maxim de Winter has remarried. When he takes his young bride back to his ancestral manor in Cornwall, his housekeeper immediately antagonises her. In a house overflowing with the memories of her husband’s late wife - the mysterious Rebecca - the Second Mrs de Winter comes to terms with the tragedies that preceded her life in the mansion. 

The project has been a top hit in its native Austria since it opened in 2006, garnering a steady following across the world and subsequent runs in Asia and Europe. The original is fabled to feature incredible sets and a sumptuous staging - it’s a shame those elements haven’t transferred. Reduced to a relatively tiny space and riddled with less-than-impressive visuals, this version is not the must-see it’s supposed to be.

Bonatto’s take on the material could have easily and more successfully been a staged concert. A book as creaky as Manderley’s hinges on a stormy night and lyrics that are narratively repetitive and poetically lacklustre aren’t a good match for du Maurier’s tale either.

Musically, it features a grand score that hits a qualitative plateau right after the first number. “Last Night I Dreamt of Manderley” feels like an announcement and is easily the one song people will whistle on their way home. A very classical sound in the vein of Les Mis, Notre Dame de Paris and the lot accompanies the intense account, but doesn’t manage to lift its shortcomings. The vocals are often remarkable and Kara Lane’s Mrs Danvers steals the scene, but the main couple lack chemistry on both ends, failing to create tension and solidify their attraction from the get-go. Their whirlwind Monégasque romance is over too quickly for the audience to root for the unnamed narrator - this happens a lot over the course of the piece. 

Lauren Jones is a constantly timid, scaredy, outclassed young woman. The extent of her character development seems to stick to her clasping her hands with a frown. She remains so mousy and insipid that one truly wonders how de Winter could fall for her so fast. On the other side, Richard Carson’s Maxim is rather plain and definitely doesn’t exude any of the dangerous charisma his type of damaged man should. She’s fidgety and nervous; he has a silver tongue and an educated style. She doesn’t hide her subdued nature; he attempts a short temper. It’s regrettable to say that they’re both deeply uninteresting.

The pièce de réstistance comes in the form of Lane’s presence. Her rich, velvety tones and angry passion become one of the few matters of real interest in the plot. While she’s doubtlessly impressive, her performance isn’t lifted by her environment. Her mournful ballad about her former employer takes place in a bare, rather ugly bedroom that supposedly belonged to Rebecca. Not a hint of her cruel worldliness and extravagant personality is to be seen. Like much of Nicky Shaw’s set dressings, it looks sadly cheap and fake.

A lonely bed with polyester-looking sheets lies underneath a skeletal wisteria, near a window that’s only ever opened to let in the foggy breaths of an undersized mist machine. The surroundings relentlessly look like they’re made of cardboard à la big-budget am-dram. Smoke and dry ice try to heighten the mood and play with the tension, but the atmosphere never truly hits the mark. In essence, the production, unfortunately, lacks sophistication in its mise en scène.

Plenty of delightfully sinister elements suddenly tip into melodrama and the excellence of the score is never matched by the direction. Grandiose music soars alongside great performances, but there’s a distinctive lack of build-up and character exploration in the text. The rendition of the lyrics is rather simple and repetitive in its wording, while the book remains nothing special throughout.

This Rebecca is traditional in every way, but it’s most certainly not a classic. Clunky scene changes and unnecessary choral numbers remove the attention from the characters, and what might have started as a beautiful visual homage to the über-famous Hitchcock film with Laurence Olivier stumbles over and ends up in soap-operish territory. It’s a shame that so much has been lost in translation.

Rebecca runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until 18 November.

Photo credit: Mark Senior


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