Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca is one of the most iconic novels in English literature. The stage musical adaptation premiered in Vienna, Austria, where it was performed in German. It has taken almost two decades for the musical to make it to du Maurier’s homeland.
Rebecca depicts an unnamed young woman (addressed as “Mrs de Winter”; played by Lauren Jones) who impetuously marries a wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter (Richard Carson). However, it isn’t long before discovering that both he and his household are haunted by the memory of his late first wife, the title character. The primary antagonist, and most iconic character, is Mrs. Danvers (Kara Lane), the manipulative housekeeper of DeWinter’s Cornish estate, Manderley. Mrs. Danvers resents the intrusion of the new wife, whom she deems an unworthy replacement for the late mistress Rebecca, whom Mrs. Danvers served as a child until her untimely death in a drowning accident. The new Mrs. de Winter struggles to find her identity and take control of her life among the shadows left by Rebecca.
The Charing Cross Theatre, an intimate off-West End theatre in the West End, is a strange choice for the UK and English-language premiere of a musical famed for its production value. The original production had an elaborate set, including a spiral staircase which (spoiler) set alight during the house fire.
An off-West End theatre with a small stage, one could not reasonably expect such grandeur to be replicated, but I was certainly not expecting squared stone steps against a brown wall. The designers might have taken a minimalist and impressionistic approach, allowing the audience to use their imaginations, much like Jamie Lloyd‘s reimagining of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, which has no set – a far cry from previous productions’ excessive opulence.
This could have been quite interesting: we’re supposedly in a manor but all we see is the abyss. Manderley would have felt like purgatory: an ostensibly glamorous estate where the residents, including the owner, are trapped. Think the castle in Beauty and the Beast, before the arrival of Belle.
Instead, the designers have created an uninspired compendium of squared walls in a muted colour scheme. Manderley, supposedly a grand mansion, looks like a town hall. The visuals are jarring because we are repeatedly told that the glamorous Rebecca had incredible taste – but all we see are brown walls. Perhaps the intention was to make Manderley feel cold and unloved but the estate’s opulence is supposed to be intimidating, especially for the working-class (new) Mrs. de Winter.
Yet, the incredible cast are let down by the lighting. Whilst lighting and projections are used effectively, the stage is often dimly lit, and we can hardly see the cast’s faces. They are singing emotional ballads but we have to rely almost solely on their voices because their faces are shadowed.
Whilst the flamed staircase is sorely missed, this production succeeds at (spoiler) creating a house fire on a budget. The aisle in between the two tiers was often used by actors; the production had a few immersive elements, with a little audience interaction (seeing the popcorn man repeatedly rejected was a bit awkward).
During the fire, the ensemble comes racing through the doors before running onstage, which is lit red. The entire auditorium is filled with smoke. It’s all very dramatic.
The score is pleasant and aurally pleasing but it can be a bit repetitive, and some of the songs are uninspired.
I particularly liked the chilling theme that sometimes played when the sinister Mrs. Danvers arrived onstage. The oft-repeated title song, sung superbly by Lane, is fabulous and ferocious – but by the fourth time, it’s become tired. It is sung regularly to an increasing and unintentional comic effect. I recall a man a couple of rows in front of me bowing his head with laughter the third and fourth time the song was sung.
The English-translated lyrics can be a bit awkward, for example, “I’ll glide down the stairs and catch them all unawares.” What?
There are some standout songs. Mrs. de Winter’s “I’m An American Woman” is pretty good. I absolutely love the dazzling duet between Mrs. de Winter and Mrs. Danvers, “Mrs. de Winter is Here”, in which Mrs. de Winter finally stands up to Mrs. Danvers; it is the beginning of the end for Mrs. Danvers.
The ensemble-led numbers are catchy and captivating. They add some humour and groove to this heavy, dark story.
The central trio – Jones, Carson and Lane – are absolutely exceptional. They all have powerful, vivacious voices, and each embodies their complicated characters.
I previously saw Lane in The Addams Family, where she played Alice, a prim-and-proper housewife who gradually loosens up. Rebecca has her singing a very different tune. This woman has range! She stole both shows.
Carson had a tough job playing a character who was both closed-off and troubled. There is a lot going on underneath. Initially, Maxim is charming, but shortly after “I” moves into Manderley, he begins to show his darker side – and we eventually realise just how damaged this ostensibly put-together man is.
Initially, the new Mrs. de Winter is a plain, innocent woman (a boringly archetypal portrayal), but she grows stronger and eventually becomes fiercely protective of her husband; she is prepared to do anything to protect him. Jones does a wonderful job of portraying this metamorphosis.
The female portrayals could be considered a bit sexist (spoilers ahead). Initially, we are led to believe that everybody loved Rebecca, but it is revealed that she was a spoiled, selfish, adulterous woman, who Maxim detested. Suddenly, an interesting story about navigating the difficulties of marrying a distraught widower falls into the sexist trope of virgin vs. whore, with Rebecca’s death becoming justified: the death must be covered-up for the union of Maxim and a “good” woman, whom he apparently deserves, to prevail.
The shocking revelations about Rebecca come from her ex-husband, a morally dubious character who previously treated his new wife quite poorly – so who is to say that he did not treat Rebecca poorly too? Certainly not Rebecca: she’s dead and cannot defend herself against these allegations. The narrative could benefit from suggesting Maxim is an unreliable narrator (because, let’s be frank, he is) but we are instead left with a predictable story of good versus evil.
Whilst Mrs. Danvers treats the new Mrs. de Winter terribly, she is, quite clearly, still grieving the untimely death of the woman she raised. It might have been more interesting to portray her as a morally complex and mentally unstable woman in mourning, and not just a stone-cold bitch.
If the show was more visually appealing, as previous productions have been, attention might be deflected from such shortcomings. One would be too mesmerised by the – yes, I’ll say it again – burning grand staircase(!) to pay so much attention to the faults.
Whilst Alun Hood at WhatsOnStage wonders if Rebecca works as a musical, its sheer success on the continent says otherwise. Rebecca apparently works wonderfully as a musical – but only when the production is worthy of the story.
Rebecca runs at Charing Cross Theatre until November 18 2023.