BWW Review: THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, Royal and Derngate
The very stiffest of stiff upper lips is on display at Royal and Derngate in the premiere of Barney Norris's adaptation of The Remains of the Day.
Based on Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker Prize-winning novel (which was adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson), it tells the story of the butler of Darlington Hall. Stevens (Stephen Boxer) has dedicated his whole life to service and to trying to be an exemplary servant, following the example set by his father (Pip Donaghy), and is now facing the uncomfortable realisation that things haven't turned out as he expected.
As the play starts, Stevens is given a holiday by the house's new American owner, which he uses to make a trip to visit the former housekeeper, Kenton (Niamh Cusack), who he believes is unhappy in her marriage and might be tempted back to her former role. The action then slides backwards and forwards between his pilgrimage to visit Miss Kenton in the 1950s and the 1930s, when Lord Darlington was a leading light in the movement for appeasement and hosting meetings between German and British sympathisers.
Order and the suppression (and repression) of all feelings are the watchwords for Boxer's Stevens, who is so impassive and rigid that by the end of the play you are attuned to the very tiniest movements that convey the emotions you think - you hope - are roiling inside him.
As Miss Kenton, Niamh Cusack is pleading with her eyes for him to take an opportunity to show how he really feels - or to show any emotion at all. But there is also humour, which lightens the tension that is building between the two, and would be unbearable without some kind of release.
Beyond Boxer and Cusack, the rest of the eight-strong cast all play more than one role; these transformations are slick in the main, and only occasionally felt jarring.
Christopher Haydon's direction sees the cast moving around the stage like the well-oiled machine that an English country house was meant to be, weaving between the moving large panels and mirrors of Lily Arnold's set, always with Stevens as the lynchpin.
Video by Andrezej Goulding creates the storm that rages outside at various points, and Mark Howland's lighting design uses changes between cool light and warm to show the shifts between the two time periods.
An examination of the ways people use - or waste - their lives, this is a moving and clever portrait of a search for some kind of redemption after a life lived in service to others.
The Remains of the Day is at Royal and Derngate until 16 March and then touring nationally until the end of May.
Photo credit Iona Firouzabadi