Writer: Barney Norris, from the book by Kazuo Ishiguro
Director: Christopher Haydon
Reviewer: James Garrington
The Remains of the Day is, without doubt, an extraordinary piece of theatre.
This world premiere production is based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece, and it is done extremely well. Like the book, it contains a great many themes and strands, sometimes interwoven and sometimes standing alone and unresolved, all broadly set against the story of one man, a butler in a grand country house during the pre- and post-war periods. This is a setting known and loved by many, as the success of Downton Abbey has shown – but The Remains of the Day is a long way from the often cosy and comforting Sunday-night viewing setting of that programme.
Stephen Boxer gives a masterly performance as Stevens, butler at Darlington Hall. Stevens is the archetypal servant, hearing and seeing all that happens in the house while remaining deaf and blind to it. This is a masterly piece of characterisation – Stevens is not only statue-like and emotionally repressed in the performance of his duties, but the behaviour is so ingrained that it dominates his personal life too as he consciously suppresses any apparent show of feelings. Great acting is often regarded as the ability to channel your emotions – here Boxer shows us exactly how to portray a character who seldom lets them peek out from beneath the hard exterior shell.
Playing alongside Boxer is Niamh Cusack as Kenton the housekeeper. Kenton is a far softer character, caring about her staff. Cusack gives a well-judged performance of a woman living in a state of barely-concealed disappointment and upset – primarily about the attitude Stevens has towards her and towards the people around her, a state of mind to which Stevens himself seems totally oblivious. The pair are surrounded by a strong cast with some superb performances all round. Miles Richardson is Lord Darlington, the classic 1930’s aristocratic landowner pursuing a course that he is convinced is best for the country. Although not exactly uncaring, he seems to say what politeness dictates rather than displaying genuine concern for his staff. Pip Donaghy is a very believable Stevens Senior, an aged and increasingly infirm servant. There’s Edward Franklin as Reginald, the young aristocrat turned eager journalist who wants to expose the truth, Sadie Shimmin as pub landlady Mrs Taylor doubling Mme Dupont, Patrick Toomey as American Senator Lewis and Stephen Critchlow as Sir David – great performances all round.
This piece is about much more than great performances though – it is a masterly and engrossing piece of theatre as a whole. The vision for the production is superb, and the staging is exquisite with director Christopher Haydon’s ideas expertly brought to life by not only the cast but also by the design (Lily Arnold) and lighting (Mark Howland). The set is mostly sliding panels, with odd pieces of furniture placed with superb choreography around and between the moving set pieces. The character doubling is likewise a thing of beauty, actors switching between roles and between time periods mid-scene without missing a beat.
Although The Remains of the Day is set during the middle of the last century, you find many themes that strike a chord today. Adaptor Barney Norris makes the point in his programme note that he did not deliberately seek to make the script reflect our current political climate, but the similarities are there to be seen, getting a reaction from the audience each time one crops up. How do we react to the rise of the far-right, can we trust the man in the street to have an opinion and to vote on complex questions of economics and politics, should we blindly follow the “will of the people”?
It’s not all doom and gloom, there are some moments of well-placed comedy in this inventive and inspired theatrical experience. It’s a moving, memorable and thought-provoking tale of what-might-have-beens, and if-onlys, of lives half-lived and unfulfilled. Superbly staged and wonderfully acted, it’s not to be missed.
Runs Until 16 March 2019 and on tour | Image: Iona Firouzabadi