Our kids have been back at school for less than a week so we’re in that tricky period of readjustment: ditching our relaxed, summertime approach to parenting and reacquainting them with the concept of homework, stricter screen limits and a reasonable bedtime. Just a few days into term and they’re already at peak exhaustion, so perhaps not the ideal time to take them to an evening show at the theatre on a school night. But Malory Towers – an absolute childhood favourite of mine – was coming to York Theatre Royal and there was no way we were going to miss it.
Three of us almost did miss it though. Having thought we only had two tickets, my eldest girl and I turned up to the theatre to discover that we actually had five. Cue a panicked phone call to the others, a change of clothes and a quick trip in the car: from pyjamas-in-bed to dress circle in 25 minutes. Not bad for a family that can’t get out of the door in under an hour. And it was definitely worth the effort.
Malory Towers follows the story of a group of girls in their first year at boarding school as they try to find their place, figure out friendships and embark on their journey to become ‘women that the world can lean on’. Thrown together in their dormitory with little in common except their term-time home on the Cornish cliffs, it’s little wonder that strong-willed Darrell and selfish Gwendoline, daydreaming Irene and sensible Sally and the others struggle to get along. But this is a story of redemption, acceptance and growing up: by the time the girls reach the end of the year – and their school play – they’ve learnt to resolve their differences by themselves.
The girls are played brilliantly by a supremely talented cast, but we’d single out Francesca Mills’s Sally for perfect comic timing. Musician Stephanie Hockley needs a mention too, for this is a musical and it’s the emotive songs (a mixture of originals and classics, like the nostalgic Mr Sandman) that bring the whole thing to life. Clever set pieces, like the girls’ first dip in the sea and the transformation of a classroom into a French bistro, bear director Emma Rice’s trade mark and had our children giggling in their seats. By contrast, sad news about Gwendoline’s father – delivered by a projection of the headmistress (there’s a surprising lack of adult characters in this adaptation) – is a timely reminder of the post-war backdrop that wasn’t all jolly hockey sticks. It’s a welcome emotional pull in an otherwise upbeat and positive production.
This is a PG story for a PG audience, so don’t expect the shock-factor and downright naughtiness of Rice’s Wise Children if you saw that earlier this year. It does, however, have the same energy, wit and joy. School-aged children will love it because it’s so relatable: the ups and downs of friendships, annoying parents, troublesome teachers and simple childhood pleasures like outdoor swimming. For parents, it’s as nostalgic as afternoon tea by the Cornish coast. We spent the journey home trying to decide whether we preferred Swallows & Amazons, Hetty Feather or Malory Towers. The verdict’s out – we loved them all for very different reasons – but the one thing we could all agree on is that the family shows at York Theatre Royal are getting better and better.