Often, gentle reader, when it comes to writing about a stage adaptation of a book or a film, I have to confess to having neither read nor seen its earlier manifestations. However, on this occasion, my confession is that I have indeed read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning 1989 novel (at the time I used to read as many Booker Prize nominees as I could) and even seen the Merchant Ivory film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Of course, I can’t remember a thing about either of them – apart from the fact that they were both good. For this current Made in Northampton production (co-produced with Out of Joint and the Oxford Playhouse), Barney Norris (he of Nightfall fame) has adapted Ishiguro’s novel and created a beautifully crafted, elegantly realised play which deftly weaves the story’s two timelines so you can’t see the join.
In brief (and the plot is simple, so this is indeed brief), Stevens is the butler at Darlington Hall – once the seat of Lord Darlington – but now owned by an American, the ex-Senator Lewis. Lewis gives Stevens a few days off, so Stevens motors down to the West Country to find his ex-colleague, Mrs Benn, who was once housekeeper at the Hall. Of course, in those days, she was Miss Kenton; and Miss Kenton used to hold something of a torch for Mr Stevens. But Mr Stevens was either too cold-hearted to notice it, or too devoted to his Master to allow a third party to intervene in his life. Mrs Benn has written to Stevens to inform him that her marriage to Mr Benn is on the rocks. Will Stevens track her down and whisk her away to a life of bliss in their autumnal years? Or will his natural reserve come to the fore so that he merely seeks to employ her as a housekeeper back at Darlington Hall? I couldn’t possibly say.
The play accurately reflects the flashbacks of both the book and the film by having today’s story, of Mr Stevens travelling down to Cornwall, played alongside yesterday’s story, of Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton running the house, with Lord Darlington inviting political bigwigs to the Hall for pre-Second World War negotiations. At first, my companions – Mrs Chrisparkle and the Squire of Sidcup – were both perplexed at the presentation and didn’t know who was what nor what was where. I, naturally, saw through the time travel ploy instantly; a matter of a good education, I guess. Once you do get the hang of the timescale swopsies, it all falls into place very satisfactorily.
Lily Arnold’s simple but highly effective design recreates a stately home awash with full length mirrors (and with perpetual rain) by having panels that slide into place to create the illusion of rooms, hallways, and, indeed, the West Country pub where Mr Stevens has to overnight en route. There are mirrors at the back, too, which really come into their own in the very final moments of the play as Stevens walks towards them, having been bombarded by the voices from his past from all over the auditorium; a sound engineer’s dream, it’s like discovering Stereo all over again.
At the heart of the production is Stephen Boxer as Stevens; never off-stage, even when he’s not part of the action he’s lurking at the back as the discreet butler par excellence. It’s an immaculate performance, full of reserve and contemplation, discretion and control. Almost imperceptibly, he changes from the formal, upright butler of the past to the slightly more relaxed, aged Stevens of the present; the merest of stoops, the softest of shuffles, a hint of more facial expression, slightly less clipped enunciation – a masterclass. He is matched by Niamh Cusack’s excellent performance as Miss Kenton, the assertive housekeeper who knows she’s good at her job, politely resenting interference and appalled at the growing antisemitism of the age – plus ça change, sadly. Ms Cusack also excels as the Mrs Benn of today, slightly worn down by the experiences of a difficult married life, and with an affectionate fondness for nostalgia. However, she’s not lost any of her assertiveness, as Mr Stevens discovers to his well-concealed shock.
The rest of the cast double up to cover many different roles between the two timescales, sometimes transforming from one to another before your very eyes, and with impressive impact. Stephen Critchlow’s saloon bar Harry quickly flips into the square-shouldered, cynical Sir David; Sadie Shimmin’s pub landlady Mrs Taylor adopts class and elegance as Mme Dupont, and Miles Richardson’s formal Lord Darlington becomes the avuncular Dr Carlisle with one twist of the heel. These are all confident, assertive performances. Snappy and impressive, their timescale switches are particularly effective at keeping the narration moving along nicely, especially in the second act. If I’m honest, there were a couple of moments in the first act where plot progress felt a little sluggish, but after the interval the pace picked up with gusto.
Additionally, Pip Donaghy brings a lump to the throat as the ever-faithful but increasingly frail Stevens Senior; Patrick Toomey is a prickly Senator Lewis (but one who always has an admiration for Mr Stevens) and Edward Franklin a superbly wet-behind-the-ears young Reginald, for whom Stevens is appointed as official Birds and Bees adviser.
Smart, elegant, convincing; this production tells its simple tale with class and clarity and boasts some terrific performances. After its run at Northampton, the tour continues to York, Bury St Edmunds, Southampton, Guildford, Oxford, Derby, Salisbury, Cambridge and Bristol. A neat spin on a traditional format, it’s well worth catching.
Production photos by Iona Firouzabadi