A theatre experience to savour

Rebecca - showing until Saturday, April 18, at The Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne SUS-150414-112648001
Rebecca - showing until Saturday, April 18, at The Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne SUS-150414-112648001

Yes, it’s right up to expectations. Rebecca, at the Devonshire Park this week, is one of the finest pieces of theatre that Eastbourne will host this year, writes Kevin Anderson.

Mind you, I did tell you so. Having caught up with Kneehigh’s production earlier in its UK tour, at Richmond Theatre, my own preview in last week’s Herald was unashamedly enthusiastic.

Monday’s rapturous first-night audience clearly felt just the same: Du Maurier’s classic novel is not simply well served, but taken to another level.

It is a story for all generations. I found myself sitting alongside 17-year-old Helen, a Sussex Downs drama student putting her theories and studies to the test. What did Helen think?

“I didn’t know the story in advance, and it was absolutely gripping.

“The standard of acting is amazingly high and totally convincing, and it seemed not a single detail had been overlooked.

“One performance like this, and I think anyone, including people of my age, would be completely hooked on live theatre.”

Emma Rice’s direction is controlled, knowing and flexible. The darker side of the story is always present, but sometimes only hinted at, alongside the tension, excitement, romance and some absolutely priceless moments of humour.

But Rice is only teasing: the final climax, when it arrives, is seismic.

Two massive trucks outside the stage door, and a full two days to get the set in, are worth the effort a hundredfold. As well as a technical triumph, the set is integral to the drama, embedding the story in its Cornish granite.

The attention to detail is remarkable. Listen up for that ominous knocking in the opening scene: where could that have come from? Spot the expertly handled puppetry: War Horse may have Joey the stallion but Rebecca has Jasper the dog – and those darkly hovering crows. Catch the little nod to Hitchcock when Maxim calls his new wife “Funny Face”.

But this is live theatre and not celluloid melodrama. It has structure, strength and depth, and director Emma Rice’s insightful approach is superbly reflected on stage by a company of actors who, without exception, bring characters credibly to life.

The outstanding Imogen Sage is, in Rice’s words, a Mrs de Winter for the 21st Century. Her nuanced playing takes the character on a journey, from over-awed to assertive, while in direct contrast, Tristan Sturrock’s Maxim slides from arrogant to vulnerable. And Mrs Danvers (Emily Raymond) is a skilful portrait of a woman confounded.

But for all the unremitting, almost unbearable human drama, the story is lifted by priceless comedy – a marvellous virtuoso Katy Owen as servant boy Robert and wild child Ben, and a pair of gloriously dissolute in-laws Lizzie Winkler and Andy Williams.

Music is integral too. Haunting, elusive melodies sing to the departed, and strong, elemental shanties echo the untamed sea. And the gramophone scratches out party music for the Midsummer Ball while the backstairs staff make their own impromptu entertainment in a lovely entr’acte.

The sum of these parts and more – great lighting, clever effects, perfect costuming – all adds up to a simply first-class night of theatre.

Rebecca is on until Saturday - ccatch it at all costs, or you’ll be vainly chasing that UK tour for ever…