Neither Kazuro Ishiguro’s prize-winning novel, or the acclaimed film adaptation, of The Remains of the Day prepares you for the profound tragedy felt after seeing this heart-rending story played out on stage.
I walked away from this week’s opening of the stage premiere, at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate theatre, full of despair and deeply affected by this terribly English tale of repression and regret.
We can watch all the Downton Abbey & Upstairs Downstairs that we like but nothing prepares a modern person for the sacrifices and constraints endured by the tens of thousands of people who lived their lives below stairs and in service.
Stephen Boxer gives an outstanding turn as the emotionally barren butler, Stevens, who comes to realise, far too late, what he has missed by leading a life in the employ of others.
Christopher Haydon’s evocative and elegant production draws the audience into a world below stairs that we can’t imagine.
It is deftly wrapped around an “upstairs” tale about wartime appeasement and, incredibly, includes a pre-World War II jibe aimed at the country’s ‘stupid’ electorate that could be equally targeted at present-day Brexiteers, and an anti-Semitic rant which feels similarly topical.
Haydon weaves Stevens’ journey to enlightenment through both the past and present with Boxer, and the rest of the cast, effortlessly juggling multiple timelines and conversations.
The plotting must have been horrendous but the result is haunting and ingenious.
At its heart is Stevens, a man so personified by his post that he refers to his father in the third person, and is incapable of demonstrating any emotion or affection even at the old man’s death bed.
He has no opinions of his own, telling anyone who inquires “I’m afraid I can’t help you with that, sir” and is utterly loyal to his employer, irrespective of the man’s views and actions. He is there to serve.
What lets this clever and engrossing play down is Barney Norris’s disappointing adaptation of Ishiguro’s prose. It seems so pedestrian.
The dialogue is awkward, clunky and repetitive. I became increasingly irritated at the number of times Stevens and housekeeper, Miss Kenton, included each other’s name in every exchange they had.
The Remains of the Day opens, post Second World War, with Stevens a butler to an American, who now owns a slice of English history, Darlington Hall.
The Yank, not versed in the traditions of below stairs etiquette, banters and joshes with his manservant.
Stevens, steeped in generations of protocol and decorum, is the epitome of restraint and impossible to read.
But there’s a brief glimmer of delight when he’s offered the boss’s Daimler to pootle down to the West Country to visit the former housekeeper, who is now Mrs Benn, in the hope of tempting her back to her old position.
The butler is so strait-jacketed by his lowly position that he’s wrong-footed by this open display of generosity, but he eventually accepts the offer.
On his way down the car runs out of oil and he’s forced to put up in a pub for the night where the past comes back to haunt him.
The play is graced with a supremely gifted cast, most of whom play multiple roles in both the past and present. The audience have to keep their wits about them as it’s often the most imperceptible of changes that reveals a new character.
Niamh Cusack is superb as the prickly housekeeper who constantly questions Stevens’ authority while Pip Donaghy gives a touching cameo as the butler’s ageing father (before moving onto other roles for the remainder of Out of Joint’s enthralling production).
As Lord Darlington, Miles Richardson is the embodiment of English gentry. He and his highly placed supporters are secretly working to try and avoid a second war at all costs – even if it means appeasement with Hitler.
In other scenes, at the swap of a hat, he’s a jovial GP who befriends the traveller.
Beautifully acted and stylishly staged this is a polished and poignant production which shouldn’t be missed.
The Remains of the Day runs on the Royal stage until March 16 before touring to York Theatre Royal (19-23 March); Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (26-30 March); Nuffield Southampton Theatres – NST Campus (2-6 April); Yvonne Arnaud Theatre (9-13 April); Oxford Playhouse (16-20 April); Derby Theatre (23-27 April); Salisbury Playhouse (30 April‐11 May); and Bristol Old Vic (21-25 May).
The Remains of the Day
Stephen Boxer is outstanding as a man who has given his life to service in this poignant, deeply moving stage adaptation of The Remains of the Day.