There are moments in the undeniably brave but extremely bitty new stage version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited that make the audience feel that they are just mugging up on the novel the night before an exam using study notes.
In a very stripped down co-production between English Touring Theatre and York Theatre Royal, the promise of what might be is never quite delivered, and there are even times when you pinch yourself to check that the cast is not paying tribute to the late Victoria Wood with an impromptu episode of Acorn Antiques.
Any page to stage adaptation is going to have to be fierce in its editing and there is nothing wrong per se with Bryony Lavery’s paring of the novel’s complexities. Having the protagonist Charles Ryder directly recount his story and experiences between two world wars to the audience works well as he wistfully narrates his journey alongside the rich, the eccentric, the selfish and the religious.
The downside is that few, if any, characters are really explored in any depth and scenes flash by so fast it can be difficult to keep up. The most effective moment is the climactic deathbed scene of the stately Lord Marchmain (who is seen little during the course of the play) and his return to a religious faith from which he had previously sought to escape, though the significant reactions to it by those involved are all too fleetingly signposted up to that point.
Perhaps the most difficult problem facing director Damian Cruden and the creative team was how to suggest the grandeur and visual splendour of the settings using minimal furniture and props and frequently sliding back panels – a device by designer Sara Perks that works effectively to frame the action and give the piece a modern and fluid feel. But it’s hard to escape the thought that the stately and palatial castle at the centre of the story deserves more than being suggested by a couple of armchairs and a small wooden staircase.
Most of the nine-strong cast are called upon to play several parts, and there are one or two oddities in the casting, in particular actress Shuna Snow playing a number of key male roles to varied effect. Brian Ferguson certainly manages to hold things together as Charles, though his narrative role observing what is going on makes it hard for him to build much into the character.
Christopher Simpson as the troubled hedonist Sebastian Flyte hardly has a chance to hug his teddy bear, let alone Charles, before descending into the worst excesses of drink and quickly disappearing at the start of Act Two. Paul Shelley makes much of noble Lord Marchmain and has an all too brief appearance as Mr Ryder, in a scene which only touches upon the humorous conversations he has with his son.
Caroline Harker seems rather too young and shrill as Lady Marchmain and while Rosie Hilal does well as Julia, the complexities of her character are glossed over. Kiran Sonia Sawar is good as the young and spirited Cordelia, growing from careless child to thoughtful adult, and Nick Blakeley is at his best as flamboyant Anthony Blanche.
For many, of course, the mere mention of Waugh’s magnum opus is enough to evoke fond memories of the classic TV adaptation of 1981. A new generation certainly deserves to discover the book for itself, and Lavery manages to concentrate on the novel rather than the television production as the starting point. The result is a piece that is occasionally innovative and sometimes irritating. Generally, however, on the evidence here, it may well be that on stage at least Brideshead should simply never have been revisited.
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