Tuesday 19th March 2019 at York Theatre Royal.
The Remains of the Day tells a melancholy tale of a life lived in a bubble of service and tradition at the cost of living to the full. Barney Norris adapts Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel for the stage and this production is very well constructed, cutting no corners and labouring no point. Through accomplished performances and characterful designs, the story of Stevens, the world’s most dedicated of butlers, is told with both feeling and gentle humour.
The narrative follows present-day Stevens in post-war 1950s out to meet an old friend. Ending up at the establishment of Mrs Taylor (Sadie Shimmin), he finds shadows of his past circa 1930 intruding into the present. Many productions aim high with a cross-cutting approach, but this production adopts the structure particularly well with swift shifts between scenes in the present playing alongside scenes of the past as Boxer takes Stevens’ place in each moment. It’s stylish but without fuss, giving the production a polished quality in keeping with the central figure himself.
Stevens holds his duties dear. He carries his father’s (Pip Donaghy) values with him as the latest in a line of servers. He serves his masters Darlington (Miles Richardson) and Sir David (Stephen Critchlow) with great loyalty, and acts as something of an awkward paternal proxy to the young Lewis (Patrick Toomey) for our comic entertainment. But Stevens’ is a flawed loyalty in its wilful avoidance of harsh realities. As likeable as Stevens is, his hell-bent efficiency becomes disturbing as he carries out every direction as if tea is being ordered – including the more alarming instructions.
Stephen Boxer leads by example, taking the central role as Stevens with a quiet assurance and a dignity belonging exclusively to those taking pride in service to masters. Boxer is particularly skilled when it comes to depicting Stevens as a stoic breed certain to follow orders to the letter, but also as a man so blind to his own life that his oblivion to everything around him is comical…he’s funny in spite of himself and he never knows it.
Boxer is supported by a great cast. Niamh Cusack is excellent as the conflicted housekeeper Kenton, moving between light-hearted and devastated with impressive dexterity. Kenton’s plight, like Stevens’, revolves around not taking hold of opportunities when they arise. Both characters could have taken entirely different routes in life and it’s a source of both sadness and comedy that they end up as they do.
The connection between the pair is credible but detached, making it very much a product of its time and the sense of longing which Cusack’s Kenton constantly emanates without ever slipping intothe morose gives the production much needed sensitivity in the face of Stevens’ starched and ironed characterisation.
Christopher Haydon conjures this period piece through subtle direction involving limited fuss. That said, Lily Arnold’s set design is beautiful and manages to bring the grand interiors of a stately home into being in simple, stylish ways. Set pieces are versatile too, and allow for lighting and projection designs (Mark Howland) to cast the elements onto the stage as characters brave the wind and the rain in wooded grounds. Much like the direction, the set subtly shifts to accommodate the unfolding narrative and although there are no significant visual changes, the production leans comfortably on Arnold’s designs.
This is a very well constructed period drama which engages for the duration and delivers a layered story through uniformly great performances and stylish, atmospheric designs and direction. It combines narrative dark clouds with light relief in balanced measures and tells a story most will find relatable on some level – we’ve all missed the boat at least once, haven’t we? And gone along with something we’ve known to be at least a little suspect? And had to face the harsh realities of our decisions? And been blind to our own flaws and follies? And felt great regret? I thought so. This is a worthy adaptation – catch it if you can.
This production of The Remains of the Day is an Out Of Joint & Derngate, Northampton co-production in association with Oxford Playhouse. It plays at York Theatre Royal until March 23rd 2019 and you can find tickets here. The show then continues to tour until May 21st 2019 and you can find information about venues and tickets here.