“Is it foolish to wait for the day that will never come”
You have to admire the ambition currently on display at the Union Theatre. Writing a new musical is hard enough at the best of times, but when your source material is a Booker-Prize-winning novel which has already had a much loved film adaptation made, then there’s quite a challenge ahead. But that is what Alex Loveless has taken on with his adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.
Telling the story of Stevens in post WWII England, a long-serving butler to the late Lord Darlington who is struggling to deal with his new American employer, he identifies the solution as being retrieving a former colleague from Cornwall, Miss Kenton. As he sets off on a road-trip to try and persuade her, he also goes on a journey through his memories of the inter-war period where we discover that his employer was uncomfortably sympathetic to the Nazis and that his relationship with Miss Kenton ran far far deeper than that of just butler and housekeeper.
As Stevens and Miss Kenton, Stephen Rashbrook and Lucy Bradshaw are perfectly cast. Rashbrook displays the emotional restraint of a man who knows nothing aside from a life of servitude and dealt with transmitting this through the medium of song rather well (though there were moments when the sound drowned him out). As Miss Kenton, Bradshaw however is allowed to burst free from her emotional shackles occasionally, her playful scenes teasing Stevens over his reading material were joyous and her beautiful voice filled the Union perfectly, she is just excellent throughout.
If anything, I wish the show concentrated even more on their relationship. The first half is mostly taken up with Lord Darlington’s politicking which I just didn’t find as engaging. Partly because the characterisation of Darlington was a little weak, but also because Loveless’ ballads and rousing ensemble numbers are much stronger than the upbeat songs that dominated here.
Throughout the ensemble, there was not a weak link to be found performance-wise: Reuben Kate making an assured UK debut with two strong characterisations, two good accents and one powerful voice; Katia Sartini and Gemma Salter tugging at the heartstrings with their beautiful duet Close Your Eyes and Dudley Rogers impressing as both the frail Stevens Senior and a charming cameo as a friendly passerby later on.
There’s a fair amount of dancing in the show and it is well executed throughout, the girls’ routine to ‘The End of the Pier’ was great fun. But to be frank, I did not feel that much of it was well incorporated into the production or indeed that it was strictly necessary. The representation of the passage of time through a series of dances was clumsy and the dance sequence inserted into the finale was badly placed, sapping the emotion from what should have been a highly moving ending. I would have placed the final dance section at the beginning of the finale thus allowing the vocal reprises to ratchet up the emotion through to the end.
The staging was relatively simple, evoking the dusty grandeur of an abandoned stately home well, but the arrangement with seating on two sides and the band tucked away behind the far wall of the set means that the space in the Union is not utilised to its full advantage. The action is often pushed too far forward resulting in some blocking issues, one song had me watching the backs of six men for too long.
The Remains of the Day is not perfect, but there are moments in here which are simply lovely. It is so nice to see a musical playing it perfectly ‘straight’ as it were, there’s no tiresome self-referencing or arch post-modern irony here, just a strong set of performances, an engaging central storyline and some lovely ballads.