Review – The Remains of the Day, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th February 2019

The Remains of the DayOften, gentle reader, when it comes to writing about a stage adaptation of a book or a film, I have to confess to having neither read nor seen its earlier manifestations. However, on this occasion, my confession is that I have indeed read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning 1989 novel (at the time I used to read as many Booker Prize nominees as I could) and even seen the Merchant Ivory film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Of course, I can’t remember a thing about either of them – apart from the fact that they were both good. For this current Made in Northampton production (co-produced with Out of Joint and the Oxford Playhouse), Barney Norris (he of Nightfall fame) has adapted Ishiguro’s novel and created a beautifully crafted, elegantly realised play which deftly weaves the story’s two timelines so you can’t see the join.

ROTD2In brief (and the plot is simple, so this is indeed brief), Stevens is the butler at Darlington Hall – once the seat of Lord Darlington – but now owned by an American, the ex-Senator Lewis. Lewis gives Stevens a few days off, so Stevens motors down to the West Country to find his ex-colleague, Mrs Benn, who was once housekeeper at the Hall. Of course, in those days, she was Miss Kenton; and Miss Kenton used to hold something of a torch for Mr Stevens. But Mr Stevens was either too cold-hearted to notice it, or too devoted to his Master to allow a third party to intervene in his life. Mrs Benn has written to Stevens to inform him that her marriage to Mr Benn is on the rocks. Will Stevens track her down and whisk her away to a life of bliss in their autumnal years? Or will his natural reserve come to the fore so that he merely seeks to employ her as a housekeeper back at Darlington Hall? I couldn’t possibly say.

ROTD7The play accurately reflects the flashbacks of both the book and the film by having today’s story, of Mr Stevens travelling down to Cornwall, played alongside yesterday’s story, of Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton running the house, with Lord Darlington inviting political bigwigs to the Hall for pre-Second World War negotiations. At first, my companions – Mrs Chrisparkle and the Squire of Sidcup – were both perplexed at the presentation and didn’t know who was what nor what was where. I, naturally, saw through the time travel ploy instantly; a matter of a good education, I guess. Once you do get the hang of the timescale swopsies, it all falls into place very satisfactorily.

ROTD1Lily Arnold’s simple but highly effective design recreates a stately home awash with full length mirrors (and with perpetual rain) by having panels that slide into place to create the illusion of rooms, hallways, and, indeed, the West Country pub where Mr Stevens has to overnight en route. There are mirrors at the back, too, which really come into their own in the very final moments of the play as Stevens walks towards them, having been bombarded by the voices from his past from all over the auditorium; a sound engineer’s dream, it’s like discovering Stereo all over again.

ROTD8At the heart of the production is Stephen Boxer as Stevens; never off-stage, even when he’s not part of the action he’s lurking at the back as the discreet butler par excellence. It’s an immaculate performance, full of reserve and contemplation, discretion and control. Almost imperceptibly, he changes from the formal, upright butler of the past to the slightly more relaxed, aged Stevens of the present; the merest of stoops, the softest of shuffles, a hint of more facial expression, slightly less clipped enunciation – a masterclass. He is matched by Niamh Cusack’s excellent performance as Miss Kenton, the assertive housekeeper who knows she’s good at her job, politely resenting interference and appalled at the growing antisemitism of the age – plus ça change, sadly. Ms Cusack also excels as the Mrs Benn of today, slightly worn down by the experiences of a difficult married life, and with an affectionate fondness for nostalgia. However, she’s not lost any of her assertiveness, as Mr Stevens discovers to his well-concealed shock.

ROTD5The rest of the cast double up to cover many different roles between the two timescales, sometimes transforming from one to another before your very eyes, and with impressive impact. Stephen Critchlow’s saloon bar Harry quickly flips into the square-shouldered, cynical Sir David; Sadie Shimmin’s pub landlady Mrs Taylor adopts class and elegance as Mme Dupont, and Miles Richardson’s formal Lord Darlington becomes the avuncular Dr Carlisle with one twist of the heel. These are all confident, assertive performances. Snappy and impressive, their timescale switches are particularly effective at keeping the narration moving along nicely, especially in the second act. If I’m honest, there were a couple of moments in the first act where plot progress felt a little sluggish, but after the interval the pace picked up with gusto.

ROTD3Additionally, Pip Donaghy brings a lump to the throat as the ever-faithful but increasingly frail Stevens Senior; Patrick Toomey is a prickly Senator Lewis (but one who always has an admiration for Mr Stevens) and Edward Franklin a superbly wet-behind-the-ears young Reginald, for whom Stevens is appointed as official Birds and Bees adviser.

ROTD6Smart, elegant, convincing; this production tells its simple tale with class and clarity and boasts some terrific performances. After its run at Northampton, the tour continues to York, Bury St Edmunds, Southampton, Guildford, Oxford, Derby, Salisbury, Cambridge and Bristol. A neat spin on a traditional format, it’s well worth catching.

Production photos by Iona Firouzabadi

Review – King Lear, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th April 2016

King LearTime to add another King Lear to the collection. For this Made in Northampton production, which will tour to nine more theatres between now and July, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by Lady Lichfield, paying us a visit in a never-ending quest for culture and alcohol. She’d never seen King Lear on stage before, poor love. In previous years we’ve seen stage productions with McKellen (majestic), Postlethwaite (troubled) and Jacobi (petulant), all brilliant in their own way. And Mrs C in particular can’t forget the TV adaptation with Olivier as Lear, which had her blubbing uncontrollably when Cordelia died. I think she had hoped for the earlier adaptation where Cordelia marries Edgar and they all live happily ever after.

Michael PenningtonTo add to that pantheon of greats, we can now include Michael Pennington, whom I must confess I had never seen before. His is a fantastic Lear, extremely believable as both the self-centred and quick to ire king, and as the devastated, broken man on the blasted heath. Delightful to watch and listen to throughout, with his superbly pitched diction, his gently understated quirky visual expressions, and his gradual decline into madness. He answers the perennial question of Is Lear Really Mad with an utterly honest, wide-eyed stare of dementia that certainly convinced me. Every inch a great performance.

Who loves me bestSome Shakespeare productions can be amazingly inventive; some grow their strength from their essential traditionalism. You don’t get much in the way of traditional Shakespeare nowadays – it’s almost seen as a confession of unoriginality if you don’t place it in an anachronistic time-setting or have all the cast members the same sex. Max Webster’s production is pretty much in the classically traditional line; there is a nod to the 1920s/30s in the costumes, and Regan’s child sports a rather smart perambulator, but apart from that it is the timeless story of the powerful but vain old man who gives all to his daughters and gets less than nothing in return. It’s a good, solid production that tells its story with great clarity, pared back so that no gimmicks get in the way, although with a couple of surprising twists in a few of the scenes to keep you on your toes. However, I must say that I thought the use of music, when I noticed it, was rather heavy-handed; there’s a very Hollywood-style orchestral accompaniment to the big fight between Edgar and Edmund which completely destroyed its sense of tension. In any event, the fight itself was choreographed with a remarkable lack of realism; I briefly thought we’d been transported to a scene between Aladdin and Abanazar.

Joshua Elliott and Michael PenningtonHowever, what you come away with is a satisfactorily rewarding production, with some very fine performances, and interesting, thought-provoking interpretations of some of the roles. For me, apart from Mr Pennington, the best performance of the night was from Joshua Elliott as the Fool. Primarily, he achieved the nigh-on impossibility of making the Fool funny. He made you laugh, yet still delivered his blistering observations on Lear that hit the spot with all the precision of a Tomahawk missile; frequently all in the same sentence. Rarely have I heard the lines such as all thy other titles thou hast given away told with such simple honesty. And, with some cunning direction, the “joint-stool” line worked perfectly.

Scott KarimThat fine actor Pip Donaghy makes a perfect Gloucester, warmly trusting Edmund, heartily supporting the King, and allowing himself to be duped because of his own open nature. Gloucester features in two of the most challenging moments of the play, and I find myself looking forward to them just to see how they’ll deal with them. The first is where Cornwall blinds him – challenging due to its goriness (and this production doesn’t disappoint) – and the second is where he attempts to throw himself off a cliff that isn’t there; a truly pathetic moment (in the correct sense of the word). Again, that scene was beautifully portrayed, also thanks to the sincere and heartfelt portrayal of Edgar by Gavin Fowler.

Adrian IrvineCatherine Bailey’s Goneril and Sally Scott’s Regan appear as sisters in unctuous sycophancy as they outdo each other in their hideous praise for their father, which of course all turns to dust once they have achieved power. They both absolutely look the part of butter-wouldn’t-melt, which adds to the shock of their true nature, with Miss Scott in particular resembling the evil twin of Lady Edith from Downton Abbey. Tom McGovern’s Kent is the mildest and, dare I say it, blandest of courtiers, but absolutely comes to life when pretending to be the sparky little Caius, horrendously chipper in his support for Lear. Among the more minor characters, I thought Daniel O’Keefe was excellent as the serviceable villain Oswald, hiding tight-lipped behind his status as Goneril’s steward, but physically cowardly when real life intercedes. There is a gasp moment when you really think Regan is going to seek to reward Oswald for information in a manner not entirely becoming a lady; but wet fish that he is, he doesn’t go there. Very nicely done.

Catherine BaileyScott Karim gives us a very stylish portrayal of Edmund. I normally think of Edmund as full of bluster and barely disguised anger. However, this Edmund is much more introverted; quiet, sly, taking the audience into his confidence with subtle glee. He is a Uriah Heep of an Edmund, creating slippery plans for his own personal wealth and success, and with no thought to the consequence to his high-living brother or generous father. At first I was unsure of this portrayal, but I quickly saw how extremely well it works.

Tom McGovernI am, however, less certain of the interpretation of Cordelia, by Beth Cooke. I always associate the character with purity – being the youngest, unmarried, daughter – and honesty, as she refuses to lie to her father about how much she loves him. This portrayal certainly reflects Cordelia’s honesty, as she adamantly refuses to back down to Lear’s hectoring behaviour. But purity? When, disinherited, she meets her two suitors, Burgundy and France, she’s all over Burgundy like a rash. That’s not the classic Cordelia I remember. Also, she opens the play by coming on stage and firing her shotgun at us. This appears to be a Cordelia with attitude. However, her mannered speech delivery remains fairly constant throughout the play – speaking with a slow, almost ponderous rhythm that doesn’t allow for much variety of tone or expression. She may have attitude, but she also seems to be resigned to a life of misery from the very start. I must confess, it didn’t quite work for me.

But the evening definitely belongs to Mr Pennington, who brings an accessibility and modernity to the role that makes you realise that any of your elderly relatives could easily become a Lear if the wind was in the wrong direction. A very enjoyable and rewarding evening.

P.S. Mrs C didn’t cry.

Review – Taken At Midnight, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 11th October 2014

Taken at MidnightStill in the company of Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters, Mrs Chrisparkle and I got up early to take the scenic drive to Chichester for our final visit there this year. Normally we only go once a year but this time the Summer Programme was too good not to wallow in it to the max. We arrived in plenty of time for our yummy lunch served at the Minerva Brasserie, the perfect start to a self-indulgent weekend of theatre overload.

Taken At Midnight, the final play in Chichester’s Hidden Histories season, concerns Hans Litten, the lawyer who subpoenaed Adolf Hitler in 1931 and subjected him to open cross-examination in the criminal trial of four Brownshirts – the Stormtroopers who handled Hitler’s dirty work with such evil gusto. I’d never heard about Hans Litten, but it’s not surprising – as neither western nor communist governments found his activities useful for their cold war propaganda. Historically, his was a low profile for many years and it wasn’t until 2008 that the first biography (in English) about him was written.

Penelope Wilton as IrmgardLitten’s nifty questioning humiliated Hitler, causing him to attempt to defend the indefensible; and it would be an experience Hitler was not going to forget or forgive in a hurry. On the night of the Reichstag Fire in February 1933, Litten was arrested and from then on was kept in concentration camps till the end of his life. Mark Hayhurst’s play follows Litten’s imprisonment through the eyes of his mother Irmgard, a constant thorn in the flesh of the local Gestapo, never allowing her son’s predicament to be forgotten.

Martin HutsonThis is a very dramatic and sombre play given a suitably intense production by Jonathan Church’s lucid direction and Robert Jones’ stark design. Plush padded leather chairs and well-made desks brought on and off centre stage give an illusion of elegance and decency in Nazi Germany; contrasted with the barren dormitory and brutal guards of the concentration camp setting against the back wall of the stage. Harsh lighting and sound plots emphasise the horror of the Third Reich, nowhere witnessed with greater impact than in a hard-hitting scene where Litten, along with his two co-prisoners, Ossietzky and Mühsam, are suspended by their wrists and whip-lashed during questioning – all done by stage effects. But the real power of contrast in this production comes from the juxtaposition of the quiet purity of Irmgard’s speech and behaviour, and the violence of the society that surrounds her.

Penelope WiltonPenelope Wilton’s performance as Irmgard is a thing of beauty. Reserved yet assertive, elegant yet punchy, she is dignity personified in the face of extreme provocation. Her plight as the mother of an imprisoned man, whom she cannot see and whose wellbeing or otherwise she can only guess at, is beautifully and movingly presented; and the way she just hangs on to her politesse whilst sparring with the SS in the shape of Dr Conrad makes you curl your toes with shameless pleasure. The scene where she finally does get to see her son again after so many years is simply a masterclass of understatement.

Prisoner and guardsMartin Hutson’s portrayal of Litten is of a man who never loses his sense of self and his knowledge of what’s right and what’s wrong, but whose understanding of the situation in which he finds himself gets progressively less optimistic as the years go by. It’s very moving to see his youthful dynamism get broken by the prison system and his appearance in the penultimate scene when he finally sees his mother again is heart-breaking in his resignation to his fate.

David YellandAlthough its tone is dark, and ultimately very sad – we all know what is going to happen in Germany during the 30s and 40s – structurally the play leaves us with a sense of victory. There’s no doubt about what’s destined for Litten – a savage light and sound effect shows us with horrific clarity; but we still get to see his courtroom moment of glory – for which he eventually paid the ultimate price – bestriding the court like a Colossus and making mincemeat of Hitler, whilst his mother looks on adoringly. It’s a very positive finale.

Penelope Wilton and John LightThis is a splendid ensemble production and all the cast give great performances. Particular plaudits to John Light as Conrad, seemingly reasonable and refined, playing a defensive bat to keep Irmgard at bay until he has no alternative but attack; David Yelland as Lord Allen, ostensibly the great hope that a member of the British House of Lords might possibly hold some sway with Hitler in negotiation, but in reality ineffectual and powerless; and Pip Donaghy as the spirited Erich Mühsam, always maintaining a bright opposition to the cowards who imprison him, unwavering in his taunting of the Nazis, even in the face of imminent death: “Goebbels? He’s just not a funny man…”

A very strong, emotional play with a stunning central performance by Penelope Wilton and terrific support from the rest of the cast – this is an experience at the theatre that stays with you long after curtain down. It continues at the Minerva until 1st November, and I would recommend it without hesitation.