The Remains of the Day

Music, book and lyrics by Alex Loveless, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
Union Theatre, Southwark

Production photo

Ishiguro's Booker Prize winning novel about the butler of a large country house with its political sidelights and repressed emotion might seem a strange subject to turn into a musical but, as the author himself told listeners to the BBC's Today programme, he long ago thought of it as a musical himself, though he put the idea aside because that might be thought it a bit of a joke.

The novel is a first person narrative in which butler Stevens, writing perhaps to a fellow butler, reflects on the nature of butling and looks back on his life at Darlington Hall, the grand country mansion where he has been employed for several decades, and 'Ishi' is right to think that such introspective material is good musical material for, as he commented, songs give the opportunity for characters to give expression to suppressed feelings and thwarted emotions.

This adaptation is pretty faithful to the book, though misguided, I think, in a self-conscious attempt to inject an upbeat dose of high-spirited musical cliché tits and teeth.

It opens badly with a lively chorus number 'The Open Road.' Butler Stevens, borrowing his employer's luxurious car is setting off making a private visit to a former housekeeper at the Hall, it isn't a charabanc party! It doesn't tell us what is going on and it is not until nearly the end of the show that we discover what this journey is all about.

Very soon a dance number turns the clock back thirty years to 1922 but it is far too long so early in the show, before we have begun to understand what is going on. Thereafter things build well with rather Gilbertian numbers that present the politicking that goes on after the Treaty of Versailles and, a decade later, when Steven's employer is hosting fascist supporters.

Adrian Beaumont as Sir David and Christopher Bartlett as his son Reginald give strong performances representing traditional British attitudes and Leeway Townsend has a comic number as a Foggier Frenchman as seen through English eyes.

Dudley Rogers, doubled up with arthritis as Stevens Senior, has a number with his son which brings out the relationship between them and there is an extremely effective duet for two sacked maids (Katia Sartini and Gemma Salter), backed by a chorus of all the other domestics that is at the heart of what this show is all about.

The brittle relationship between Stevens and housekeeper Miss Kenton and the undercurrents that flow between them give rise to numbers but this is an area that could be expanded.

Stephen Rashbrook plays Stevens with gentle restraint. I found his performance more convincing than Anthony Hopkin's movie portrayal; it is well matched to this intimate space and Lucy Bradshaw gives an uptight edge to her confrontations with the butler that mask her growing affection for him. These are two excellent performances but there are opportunities missed for songs that reveal more about emotions that these leading characters are hiding.

This is an ambitious undertaking that doesn't altogether come off. Since seeing it I have learned that it is very much a work in progress and this production a pocket version of an even more ambitious show, trimmed musically and in scale to fit this pocket theatre. The complete score is through-composed, which would remove the awkwardness when there seems to be no momentary motivation for a character to burst into song, with music more complex than fits this particular acoustic and requires greater resources and, though David Shields's settings on a miniscule budget are effective, if applied with the same degree of imagination, a bigger production budget and more careful costuming could also pay dividends.

This is far from perfect but there is a potential here that could be a winner if properly developed.

Ends 25th September 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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