By Julie Binysh
‘Daisy Pulls it Off’s author, Denise Deegan, went to a state school, but she was heavily influenced by the girls’ boarding school stories of Enid Blyton and others. So, whilst her 1983 play is a parody of the genre, it is also a nostalgic celebration of a reading experience of generations of girls (myself included) who attended ordinary ‘elementary’ schools, like our heroine.
Daisy Meredith is a poor but clever girl who becomes Grangewood School’s first scholarship pupil. She looks forward to making friends with jolly girls, playing hockey (which she has only learnt from a book), midnight feasts and fearful scrapes, and paving the way for further elementary school pupils. She is very nearly thwarted by prejudice and snobbishness, but her pluck, decency and courage win through. And she manages to solve a fiendish mystery along the way.
This was Jess Jenner’s second directorial outing this year, and her first on the main stage. Following her ‘Crooked Wood’ in the bar, I had high hopes for ‘Daisy’ and I was not disappointed. Ms Jenner’s attention to detail was apparent in every aspect of the production, from using the cast in character to promote the show in advance, to the bunting in the bar, the pre-show instrumental accompaniment, and headmistress Miss Gibson’s direct address to the audience, establishing the ‘play within a play’ framework, not to mention the innovative photo flash curtain call. The audience were grinning before they even entered the theatre, and continued to do so throughout.
This is not a naturalistic play. The fourth wall is constantly broken as characters directly address the audience, so the refreshing choice of a bare set was apt, using skilful lighting, sound and verbal description to set the scene. Trunks and small cases acted as desks, library and cliff top, and the use of frames as windows and knotted sheets on wire for the clifftop rescue were effective. Scene changes were achieved quickly and seamlessly, choreography was slick and the hockey match was a triumph. Costumes were simple and appropriate, gymslips, academic gowns, no nonsense.
This was a well-cast and well-performed ensemble play. For it to work, it needed to be tongue in cheek, but played straight-faced. The audience must root for Daisy, and -jubilate!– we did! The firm friendships between the girls are the foundation of the play, with three central pairs. Ami Williamson was at her very best as the sweetly innocent, hopeful, decent, determined Daisy, and Hazal Han as her madcap, exuberant best friend Trixie was equally endearing and believable, as was their instant friendship and devotion to one another.
Jane Lobb was Clare Beaumont, Head Girl, Sports Captain, adored by the younger girls and a ‘shining example of true British Girlhood’. Ms Lobb’s performance was spot on, she inhabited the physicality of the character completely and was jolly and loveable.
Clare’s Irish best friend, Alice Fitzpatrick, nicely played by Ruth Jarvis, was equally decent, trustworthy and crushworthy. Then we come to the ‘rotters’, (as “only rotters don’t like sport”). Charis Beyer as chief snob, Sybil and her sidekick, Monica, Jaimi Keemer, gleefully try to make Daisy’s life as difficult as possible. This pair could have taught a masterclass in sneering and hair flicking, and their snivelling penitence at the end when saved by Daisy was hilarious.
Fellow pupils Claire Darlington, Rebecca Pitt and Jessica Vautier contributed honourably to the ‘scrummy tussles’ and hot water bottle fights (tongues firmly in cheeks please) and we hope to see them again soon.
Now to the grown ups. Emma Kerby-Evans’ Miss Gibson was, in my opinion, the best performance I have seen her give on the BLT stage. Stately and assured, she stayed faithfully in character throughout all her interaction with the audience. Another personal best for me was Karen O’Neill as Mother, Mademoiselle and Miss Granville, three very contrasting characters. I particularly enjoyed her icy Miss Granville appearing silently and terrifyingly behind Daisy and Trixie. Felix Catto was born to play Mr Scoblowski and he inhabited the role with gusto! And of course, there was the fun touch of not knowing who was going to play Mr Thompson/Father each night. I saw Steve Williams performance and he played it straight whilst hamming it up marvellously; a cross between Douglas Reynholm from The IT crowd and Lord Flashheart in Blackadder. I did see Mike Savill on the bar screen briefly and was satisfied that he was equally hammy.
The Grangewood School Song was actually written by Andrew Lloyd-Webber under the anagrammatic pseudonym of Beryl Waddle-Browne and the use of music, singing and dancing to Thomas Dignum’s piano accompaniments was charming.
Having smiled and laughed all the way through, I found myself with a tear in my eye at the end at the girlish hopefulness beaming at us from the stage.