It’s entertainingly ironic that no adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel ever seems to be as successful as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 original.
Ben Wheatley’s 2020 remake for Netflix gave it a good go. But, sunk by a pandemic and whatever rumours are circling around star Armie Hammer these days, the refresh doesn’t seem to have sunk into the popular zeitgeist in the same way as the Oscar-winning first outing.
Flying contrary to this immutable rule of the universe is Sylvester Levay and Michael Kunze’s German-language musical interpretation, which has apparently enjoyed a lot of success in Europe since its Vienna premiere in 2006. With Christopher Hampton brought on board to pen the English translation, the Charing Cross Theatre sadly proves to be a poor stage for a musical which seems to show its age on its very first night.
The story, in case you missed it, is a classically entertaining gothic thriller, and as such, it’s a hard narrative to dull down entirely. Lauren Jones is the ambiguously named ‘I’, a young companion-in-training swept off her feet by the charming Maxim de Winter (Richard Carson). Returning to his country estate of Manderley, our hero finds herself at odds with the severe housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kara Lane), who is keen to remind her that she’ll never hold a candle to Maxim’s first wife: the recently deceased Mrs de Winter.
But while the cast are universally excellent, with strong voices accompanying Levay’s timeless orchestral score perfectly, there’s a sense that the Charing Cross Theatre just isn’t the right venue to tell this story.
With a curiously deep and narrow auditorium paired with a comparatively tiny stage, any musical would struggle to muster the soul-baring atmosphere required to fill the space. With Rebecca, where a gothic, noir-y atmosphere is really half the charm, the production undoubtedly faced an uphill battle from the start. Unhelpfully, Alejandro Bonatto’s direction mistakenly tries to make the most of the space – the cast semi-regularly enter from the aisles, resulting in a lot of head-turning and neck-straining, which can’t help but feel a little amateurish.
The ambitious set proves similarly clunky, often in a more literal sense. With a series of interchanging walls presenting far too many variations of very similar-looking rooms, transitions come thick and anything but fast. With a few musical numbers taking place in front of a flimsy white curtain, even the orchestral score and strong vocals just aren’t loud enough to hide the noticeable scrapes and clunks of the set change happening just out of sight.
Still, there are moments where the reasons for Rebecca’s European longevity come shining through. Kara Lane makes for a wonderfully psychopathic Mrs. Danvers, and the image of her silhouette belting out the gloriously operatic ‘Rebecca’ from the hallway stairs captures just the kind of deliciously camp seriousness that could make a musical like this one really sing.
Unfortunately, the other songs don’t seem to have survived translation. Most boast wince-inducingly on-the-nose lyrics (“I’m so happy, but confused”; “First I broke it, then I put the pieces in the drawer”), while others serve little purpose other than to pack out an already inflated (and pushing two-and-a-half hours) runtime.
Curious fans of the German-language phenomenon will likely find something to latch onto here. But for the most part, 17 years after its first debut, Rebecca really seems to be showing its age. I preferred the first Mrs de Winter.
Rebecca the musical is playing at the Charing Cross Theatre until 18 November.