service

In service: Stephen Boxer as Stevens and Niamh Cusack as Miss Kenton

The remains of the day

Derby Theatre

*****

A tale of regrets, of shame, lost loves - even lost worlds as the England of the 1930s, already suffering after one Great War and mortally wounded by a second, has given way to the hopeful new world of the 1950s.

The two worlds are intertwined along with the thread of a romance that was never allowed to bloom in this well constructed play on its elegant, stylish set.

It’s a little confusing at first as the butler, Stevens, in his employer’s borrowed Daimler, is stranded in a West Country inn after minor car trouble on his way to see a Mrs Benn, née Kenton, a former housekeeper at Darlington Hall, to see if she would consider returning.

She is also an old flame, or could have been except it was a romance that was never allowed to flicker in the darkening days drifting towards war in the 1930s. Love was not part of his duties.

She pops up in flashbacks in the hotel where he is stranded and it takes a moment to realise both past and present are existing cheek by jowl.

I have neither read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning novel nor seen the subsequent celebrated film, so Barney Norris’s adaptation has to stand on its own two feet, and stand it does, concentrating on the bittersweet story of Stevens, played wonderfully by Stephen Boxer.

What a delight to see Boxer back in the Midlands, I last saw him as C S Lewis in Shadowlands where he was superb and he puts in another masterful performance as Stevens, a man so obsessed by the idea of service and dignity that he has no room left for emotion or even himself.

He is matched by Niamh Cusack as the oh so efficient housekeeper, Miss Kenton. It is obvious to anyone that the pair had a growing attraction but neither found the courage, will, confidence . . . who knows . . . to let their emotions escape.

Even when Miss Kenton tells Stevens that she has had a proposal of marriage from Mr Benn in the village it is almost a plea for him to rescue her, save her and take her as his own, instead, emotions quickly in check, he merely says congratulations and returns quickly to his duties.

remains mid

Mrs Benn and Stevens and a love that might have been

His emotions are always in check. When his father, once butler and now under-butler is dying Stevens can only spare a moment to see him. “I am so glad you are feeling better”, the sort of thing one says to a chap, then he vanishes back to his duties carrying on as normal even when he dies. A careless moment of moist eyes show emotion is there but held deep in check with no time off needed, sir, he tells Darlington.

Stevens and Miss Kenton is the ‘sentimental love story’ in this picture of the upper classes in the uneasy 1930s. Darlington was an appeaser, not uncommon among the ruling classes, who wanted peace with Germany.

After a futile meeting with the German ambassador, he even went so far as to tell Stevens to dismiss any Jewish staff. Housemaids Ruth and Sara were to lose their jobs for no other reason than their heritage.

Jenkins was appalled, Stevens merely carried out the bidding of his employer – duty over conscience.

Darlington’s reputation as a Nazi sympathiser was to destroy him and fill Stevens with shame partly because of what he had represented, and partly, you suspect, because he had been unable to protect and defend his employer, loyal duty to the end.

Lily Arnold’s setting is elegantly simple, There is a line of silent servant’s bells above the front of the stage and then fly high screens in part mirrored, acting as scrims so scenes and vignettes appeared and faded behind. The panels glided back and forth across the stage to change emphasis – sometimes they were the elegant walls of a stately home, sometimes, with lighting, hedgerows on West Country lanes, perhaps a tea room, sometimes an inn, perhaps windows on to past memories, or sometimes just plain, old windows with the rain beating down outside – and there is a lot of rain.

It is pouring down as the audience arrive with some very effective video projections (Andrzej Goulding) and sound (Elena Peña) and hardly stops.

Mark Howland’s lighting creates atmosphere, warm for the oil-lit country inn, cold and stark for the appeasement conferences, intimate for the meeting of the older Stevens and the now married Mrs Benn, and stark for the moments of high emotion.

The cast of eight, playing 12 parts as well as passers-by, also act as stagehands in choreographed movements (Lucy Cullingford) turning scene changes into almost a ballet to Sophie Cotton’s earnest music.

Richardson doubles up as the Dr Carlisle in the present day while Stephen Critchlow gives us the bar room politician Morgan in the present and the patronising, fascist Sir David in the past, a man who tries to humiliate Stevens and believes democracy is served best if the average man has no say. Sadie Shimmin is today’s pub landlady and French diplomat Mme Dupont in the past while Pip Donaghy hardly changes duties as Stevens Senior who finds himself resurrected, and demoted, as a waiter

Patrick Toomey plays Lewis, the rich American congressmen who told Darlington appeasement was wrong and who was to become the new owner of Darlington Hall while Edward Franklin is Reginald, soon to be married and almost as soon to die in Belgium in the war - Darlington’s Godson. Stevens is charged with explaining the facts of life to the young man after both father and Godfather passed on the task.

It is only in the final moments that Steven’s emotions escape, first when he confesses to Mrs Benn his fear that just as age had affected his father and his ability to serve, to do his duty, it was creeping up on him, and then in a sad, and probably, final parting when he realises, as perhaps does she, that the life he had dreamed of, perhaps both had dreamed of, had been there for the taking, a life with Miss Kenton, could have been his. Memories flood in as despair floods out.

Director Christopher Haydon has got the pace right and after a confusing few minutes allows the stories, 20 years apart, a life of their own with an excellent cast who can change roles in an instant.

Beautifully acted, in an elegant setting aided by some marvellous stagecraft, this is a theatrical treat. A well told story that just flies along, taking you with it from rainy start to rainy end. To 27-04-19

Roger Clarke

23-04-19  

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