Evelyn Waugh, adapted by Bryony Lavery
English Touring Theatre and York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal
"We are back", declares the Theatre Royal’s marketing, and this revamped, beautiful venue is certainly buzzing. It now has more open and welcoming shared spaces, better views from the stalls and a modernised feel which nonetheless works sympathetically with its classic proscenium stage and ancient brickwork.
Perhaps this was the thinking, too, behind the choice of production to open the season: a brand new adaptation of a much-loved classic novel and television series.
Opening with Charles Ryder (Brian Ferguson) revisiting, and revisited by, the memories of this ancient country pile and its echoing denizens, this version positions itself firmly as a memory play. Recollections arrive and depart "not at all tidily… but crashing into each other like dodgem cars", in writer Bryony Lavery’s words.
This choice makes for a mostly nimble adaptation, supported by some simple but original design work from Sara Perks and lighting designer Richard G Jones. Most effectively, large flats shift in and out at the back of the stage from left, right, above and below, framing the forestage action. These shape the shifting colours of the backdrop in widescreen, narrow them to portrait-size, or occasionally open right up to reveal the full vista of the Brideshead of our imaginations.
Yvonne Gilbert’s sound design is similarly sympathetic. The choice to work with onstage microphones evokes radio dramas of bygone eras, and generally adds atmosphere, though on occasion it seems somewhat superfluous and fussy.
As central character and narrator Charles Ryder, Brian Ferguson is surefooted and powerful. We follow him through his muddled memories, from the youthful, wide-eyed Oxford first-year initiated into a world of free-flowing drink and male society, to the more cynical, wasted talent later seen living through a failing marriage and irreparably lost friendships.
This is designed as an ensemble piece, though, and the cast as a whole are strong in their various roles. Shuna Snow, performing three well-differentiated supporting parts, stands out with a range of understatedly comic deadpan creations; she finds overlaps in all of these (male) roles but manages to present clear and sympathetic versions of all three.
As the iconic Sebastian Flyte, Christopher Simpson is fittingly mercurial but at times slightly too mannered to generate a truly engaging performance. His bouts of drinking are often played as if to generate humour, yet we’re also asked to sympathise with this very serious plight; the production can’t quite pull it off, though Simpson is not necessarily at fault for this.
Caroline Harker and Paul Shelley both double well in roles representing the older generation; Shelley in particular differentiates effectively and creates memorable sketches of fuddled rather than monstrous gents.
Nick Blakeley also does good service in a range of roles. As Anthony Blanche, he returns to become one of the most significant secondary characters, inveighing against English ‘charm’, which he diagnoses as the blight of love, art, and all it touches.
Other than this, it is difficult to see what reading to take from the production. Waugh’s language is undeniably witty, and Lavery’s astute ear for concise expression, and her proven talent for creating flowing memory-based narratives from sprawling stories, is in evidence here. Countless memorable turns of phrase emerge from the text: Lord Marchmain is "dying of a long word"; elsewhere he declares "I am all the Socialists would have me be."
But it is particularly troublesome to be asked to sympathise with a landed, moneyed aristocracy driven to distraction by questions of how to spend their time and how to divide their inheritance. A protracted final sequence asks us also to find drama in a religious debate over the last rites: again interesting but distinctly rooted in past, mostly inaccessible, ages.
If the Theatre Royal is to attract new audiences to visit its undeniably attractive building, we must hope that future programming speaks more clearly to other, more current and more varied cross-sections of society.
This is, then, an intermittently slick and beautiful production, but one which seems oddly out of step with the times and frequently too timid for the emboldened building which houses it.
Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith