The Remains of the Day – Review – York Theatre Royal
By Karl Hornsey, March 2019
It’s hard to believe that it’s only 30 years since Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day was published, such is the lasting regard in which it is held and how much it has become a byword for the art of doing one’s duty and maintaining dignity despite all that is going on around. And in this case there really is an awful lot going on around. The profile of the novel was then raised four years later by a critically-acclaimed and Oscar-nominated film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, which further engrained the story in the nation’s conscience. The art of keeping a stiff upper lip has seldom been so well depicted.
It’s no surprise then that the stage adaptation of the novel has attracted a cast of such quality, drawn to this work by novelist and playwright Barney Norris, and performed at the York Theatre Royal. For fans of the novel/film this is a faithful adaptation, but with enough of its own voice to stand alongside those and hold its own as a fascinating piece of work. Given the subject matter this is never going to be an easy watch, but the quality of the original novel and the cast make it a play well worth going to see.
The narrative switches between two strands. It focuses on events at Darlington Hall in Oxfordshire during the 1930s, as the clouds of doom start to gather across Europe with the rise of nationalism in Germany, and efforts by some in the higher echelons of society to appease rather than attack Hitler and his vile Nazi machine. At the heart of the story is Lord Darlington’s butler Stevens, who has devoted his life to serving his master, to the tragic detriment of the rest of his life, or the life that he could have had. The second strand sees Stevens travelling to visit the former housekeeper at Darlington Hall, Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn), with whom he has kept in touch down the years, largely in the hope that their unrequited love and affection may even in their later years come to something.
It is that theme of putting others first and doing one’s duty, driven into Stevens by his father, also a butler, that runs through the entire story. As high-ranking diplomats descend on Darlington Hall for a conference to decide what to do to quell the rising tide of fascism, Stevens maintains his dignity and keeps his opinions to himself, as he also does when Miss Kenton tells him that she is considering a proposal of marriage in the hope that he may step in and offer one of his own. It’s heartrending and intensely emotional to see Stevens gradually open up about his regrets, ending with his road trip to see if the remains of his days offer any hope of finally fulfilling his wishes and desires.
In the role played so memorably by Hopkins in the film is Stephen Boxer, who finds himself on stage for all, or very nearly all, of the entire two hours of the production, which is no mean achievement in itself. That he also expresses all of Stevens’ pent-up emotions and ‘becomes’ the character, without descending into a caricature of a butler, marks out Boxer’s performance as truly outstanding and one that holds the whole play together. There are also elements of wry humour as he goes about his work, even though he becomes so torn between duty and desire. Niamh Cusack stars as Miss Kenton, with a limited role in the first half followed by a much greater presence in the second, and there are excellent ensemble performances by the likes of Stephen Critchlow, Miles Richardson and Edward Franklin.
As well as some brilliant casting, the difficulties of switching between the 1930s and 1950s are overcome thanks to quick and innovative set changes, which enhance the viewing experience and help to make this adaptation one to catch if you can.