My Cousin Rachel – Review – Sheffield Lyceum
By Karl Hornsey, January 2020
Daphne du Maurier may not have been as acclaimed by literary critics during her lifetime as she deserved, but her novels and short stories continue to stand the test of time, and there’s no doubt she knew how to produce classic page-turners that easily keep a reader gripped. That she remains as popular as ever with the public can be demonstrated by this week’s run of My Cousin Rachel at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre, adapted by Joseph O’Connor, which opened to a packed audience on Monday evening.
My first exposure to du Maurier’s work came through the films of Alfred Hitchcock, as it may have done for many. The great director took Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds and turned them into classic films – well, two of those are classics, Jamaica Inn now creaks as much as the ships that braved the storms off the Cornish coast – albeit the film versions of the latter two don’t bear a huge amount of resemblance to source material, it has to be noted.
When you add in The Scapegoat, Don’t Look Now and My Cousin Rachel, it’s little wonder film-makers and theatre producers keep going back to du Maurier time after time. As a fan of the book and the 1951 film version starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland, I was in two minds about seeing My Cousin Rachel, mainly following the latest film adaptation of a couple of years ago, in which Sam Claflin and Rachael Weisz managed to suck any life out of the two lead characters and contribute to one of the most boring films I’ve seen in my entire life. Surely this couldn’t be as bad as that?
Thankfully, the answer is no. This production, with Helen George in the title role and Jack Holden as her emotionally torn cousin Philip, is outstanding. She manages to purvey the creeping sense of dread and mystery that Rachel imbues on the Ashley Estate in Cornwall following the death of her husband (and Philip’s cousin) Ambrose, while keeping the characters believable, and there’s a much-needed bit of humour in the script for good measure. The cast are also helped in developing the story by a wonderful set that revolves several times to show the inside and out of Barton House, a towering Gothic pile that is lashed by the Cornish coast, representing the turmoil that’s taking place inside its walls.
Rachel is one of du Maurier’s most complex and beguiling characters, and one that could easily fall into caricature in the wrong hands. Thankfully, George (familiar to most for her role in Call the Midwife) pitches her portrayal just right, finding the balance between sensual and sexually charged temptress, and fragile grieving widow, which keeps those in the audience who aren’t familiar with the story guessing until the very end as to which one of those people she actually is.
Holden is also a revelation, as the young (24 or 25-year-old) man who is set to inherit the estate, but for whom the arrival of such a strong and alluring woman throws him completely off kilter. In fact, much of this story centres on the reaction of several of the menfolk of the village to a woman of Rachel’s nature. She is an outsider in so many ways, yet one who is able to lead most men to fall at her feet.
Philip does at least have the guidance of Ambrose’s friend Nicholas Kendall, played in excellent stiff-upper-lip manner by Andy Hawthorne, understudy to the indisposed Simon Shepherd. But, and without giving away the plot, Kendall is no match for the charms of Rachel, and struggles to maintain the sense of order that has prevailed over the estate for so many years. Adding to a fine cast and taking many of the play’s best lines are Sean Murray and John Lumsden, estate workers devoted to Philip, but also affected by Rachel in their own different ways.
That a fairly lengthy opening act seemed to pass so quickly, without dragging at all, is testament to its all-round quality, and restored my faith that the story is still relevant and fascinating today, and that the latest film version was just an abomination that this adaptation has, thankfully, helped to fully erase from my memory.