Review: The Remains Of The Day. (touring) Derby Theatre 23-27 April

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day has been finely adapted for the stage by Barney Norris, who beautifully captures the subdued and reflective nature of the original story. The stellar cast and atmospheric set create a series of moments in time, some of national significance, some more deeply personal, and draw us into their changing world.

The story centres on Stevens, a reserved and dutiful butler, at Darlington Hall, England, in the 1930s. His dedication to the job and to serving his master means he subsumes all personal feelings and opinions, but in a post-war world, when everything is changing, his blind subservience to the aristocracy seems antiquated. Kenton, the energetic and outspoken housekeeper, befriends him, despite their differences. Twenty years later, Stevens visits her again and contemplates on the paths they have chosen.

The structure of the play is set up to reflect and refract, through time, the meaning of actions and decisions taken, of loyalties and priorities chosen. The past, as memories, and the present, overlap, as they do in our minds, constantly weaving in and out, not really separable, one influenced by the other. So, Stevens discusses politics in a country pub, whilst his mind remembers detailed conversations held many years ago.

This layered concept is enhanced by the elegantly designed set by Lily Arnold. A series of translucent panels and mirrored walls give an ephemeral feel, whilst the directional and subtle lighting design by Mark Howland provides movement and a sense of space. The constant presence of the architectural panels representing the Hall emphasises Stevens’ life long attachment to it. Director Christopher Haydon creates a symphony of movement with scene changes, with props and people: a street on a rainy day, people in all directions, a passer by putting up an umbrella, all overlapping and creating energy and momentum. There is a wonderful synchronicity of placement of furniture by the servants which highlights the precision and exactitude of their roles.

The story also encompasses the changing political scene in England at the time, with Lord Darlington supporting appeasement and thereby aligning himself with the Nazis by association. He requires that Stevens ‘lets go’ of two Jewish servants. Whatever his personal opinion of this, Stevens believes his duty lies in supporting his master and he does this without question. Like those who claim innocence because they were just obeying orders, he eventually realises he lacked moral imperative.

Stephen Boxer gives a remarkable performance as Stevens. The understated and constrained nature of the character could be quite restricting for an actor, but with great subtlety and inflection, Boxer brings him to life. In the second act, as Stevens grows older and realises what possibilities his life could have contained, Boxer is really moving and allows us a tiny glimpse into the personal feelings which Stevens has spent so long containing. He sits, feet glued together, knees together, hands on knees, formal even when ‘off duty’.

The energetic housekeeper Kenton, portrayed by Niamh Cusak, has real verve, and her animation and curiosity display very human and warm qualities. She offers a sharp contrast to the detachment of Stevens. Cusak is more emotional and sometimes playful but also gives a beautifully understated performance. The small ensemble cast are all wonderful character actors, many of them in different roles, sometimes within the same scene. Stephen Critchlow switches seamlessly from pub orator to a member of the aristocracy, as does Sadie Shimmin, between pub landlady and political figure Mme Dupont. The remaining cast, Pip Donaghy, Edward Franklin, Miles Richardson and Patrick Toomey play at least ten different roles between them and all very skilfully.

The play paints a scene of post-war England, its traditions and institutions. It deftly examines the role of individual choice versus duty, of the personal and the public, and does so with a delicacy of touch and pleasing visual palette that provides breathing space for one to reflect on one’s own choices and paths.

The Remains Of The Day runs at Derby Theatre until Sat 27th April. This includes Weds 24th and Sat 27th matinees.

The Remains Of The Day is an Out of Joint, Royal & Derngate Northampton co-production in association with Oxford Playhouse.

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