Last night I dreamt Daphne du Maurier’s peerless thriller received the musical adaptation it deserved. This is a bit unfair: Alejandro Bonatto’s production, first seen in Vienna in 2006 and only now receiving its English-language premiere, makes a reasonable stab at translating this shapeshifting story of a newly married ingénue whose dead predecessor haunts the house and soul of her husband, Max de Winter.
Yet where the novel balances psychological menace with a Gothic plot that includes a drowned wife, a mad housekeeper, a blackmail attempt and several epic storms, Bonatto, along with his lyricist Michael Kunze and composer Sylvester Levay, mistakes action for suspense.
It’s staged surprisingly cheaply. Bargain basement video projections – a churning sea; an obscurely rendered boat house – plus predictably liberal use of smoke and mist combine with Mandalay’s dully implacable interior whose cheerless rooms under the gimlet eye of Mrs Danvers make a far from seductive shrine to the late Rebecca. As the unnamed new wife, Lauren Jones is all bitten fingernails and shrunken shoulders, thrust into a macabre psychodrama whose nuances she is initially poorly equipped to understand.
Unable, or unwilling, however, to accommodate her role in the novel as a narrator through whose increasingly compromised perspective we witness everything that happens, Kunze instead casts her as an uncomplicated victim rather than ambiguously complicit.
His book, perfunctorily translated along with the lyrics by the ubiquitous Christopher Hampton, similarly flattens Richard Carson’s inscrutable de Winters, even capitulating to the substitute ending used in Hitchcock’s 1940 film. It robs the story of its dramatic impetus, although the effect – not necessarily unwelcome – is to make it not about an anguished husband and a dead wife but one almost entirely about three women.
Or, let’s be honest, just one woman. This is Mrs Danver’s story, the housekeeper whose erotic flavoured obsession with her dead mistress takes her to the edge of insanity. Appearing suddenly out of the gloom, casting icicle shadows on the stairwell, her eyes gleaming with unhinged ecstasy, Kara Lane is the burning centre of this production, and also gets its best song, Rebecca, a love letter and lament in one, and whose searing Lloyd Webber-style crescendo freely repeats throughout the score. Elsewhere, that unrepentantly romantic score, literal rather than suggestive, emphasises the emotional at the expense of the psychological, and can’t shake off the suspicion it’s basically a cut-price Phantom of the Opera.
The three leads ably exploit the bombast – the singing is truly very fine – and there is sparky support from the housekeeping staff at Mandalay who serve as an unofficial chorus. But while this show moves at a pleasing lick, it neither fully honours du Maurier’s original nor finds a convincing theatrical language of its own.
Until Nov 18. Tickets: 08444 930650; charingcrosstheatre.co.uk