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FringeReview UK 2016

Brideshead Revisited

English Touring Theatre and York Theatre Royal

Genre: Drama, Live Literature, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal Brighton


Low Down

Co-produced between English Touring Theatre and York Theatre Royal, Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, is a first for the stage. Sara Perks’ set commands awe. Damian Cruden directs with Christopher Madin’s crisp keyboard-inflected music.


Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, co-produced between English Touring Theatre and York Theatre Royal, is unbelievably a first for the stage and dazzles with stagecraft and storyline. Damian Cruden directs with the same dispatch as Christopher Madin’s crisp keyboard-inflected music, brazen-edged with war on a trumpet at just the right moment.

Second-rank novels adapt best, at least for TV: Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet and Brideshead Revisited itself are prime examples of classics made of flawed or sentimental scripts, charges laid in 1945 at Waugh’s best-exposed if not most-read novel. Waugh himself later apologised for some food snobbery conceived in rationed wartime.

Granada’s 1981 adaptation changed that: despite criticism, the novel’s characters, stories, phrases hold one still. Waugh finds sentiment difficult: relevant passages read like less gifted writers’ attempts, but the novel’s made it past seventy.

TV yes: novels are notoriously tricky to stage. Add to this a storyline more noted for nuance than narrative and Lavery’s attempt has to hit the ground bouncing.

It hits it running. A stunning trope – Sara Perks’ superb design with sliding panels like a variable camera shutter functions beautifully as reminiscence blinking flickr, a colour-shifting backdrop, chairs, staircase, descending empty picture frames, you enjoy a supremely flexible set. Most striking’s a storm-tossed tryst on deck: two seats yoked together slid along a rope hauled back and forth by two cast members doubling as deckhands, a literal case of all hands on deck.

Nascent artist falls for drunk brother then desponding sister of Catholic aristocratic family, and their house; loses one then finds and loses the other, all twitched on the thread of Catholic guilt. Framed by wartime envelope of older artist now moping captain bumping into house: this could all have been his. But it’s all right because he’s now a Catholic too and his décor still adorns a room.

It’s what’s left out here that Lavery shoehorns: actors talk at us. A languorous film can sweep in much: so where can talking stop? Lavery gets an incredible amount in; small lapses are important but a breathless compression irradiates much of the play. It’s tempting to luxuriate in this with the ever-snaking set.

Lavery’s Charles Ryder, the artist played by Brian Ferguson, narrates most of what in effect’s a speed-read of parts we know from the ITV series. He’s less icy than Jeremy Irons though the iconic TV avatars have inhabited the novel thirty-five years, and Ferguson’s shift to a warmer palate parallels Christopher Simpson’s excellent Sebastian Flyte, young hedonist from Catholic aristocracy descending into alcoholism and exile. Both actors purr from understatement to blare in a trice, and as clearly it’s directed since various sisters command not to shout; it does seem however as if a Rolls Royce (there’s one invoked) suddenly lets a roar we never suspect existed.

Caroline Harker’s like Simpson active in the first half, as both Lady Marchmain and Nanny, younger for both parts than expected – which prejudice needs shedding. Lady Marchmain’s brothers are all young enough to have died in the war. In two scenes she heaves around a book of the youngest – Ned’s – poems, more like a black-bound version of This Is Your Life. The point however’s entirely missed: Charles is meant to infer that Ned has a vocation. The one who has is also passed over.

Perhaps Harker is too: she’s given little time to settle and become the presence she’s cited as being, with a brisk on-off flutter of signifiers that hallmark this production, superb and sleekly necessary for this steeplechasing exposition, though occasionally fatal to atmosphere and credibility. We’re not made to care for these characters though with less exposition later on we began to draw breath and even feeling.

Julia Flyte’s Rosie Hilal shines when young, though her later Julia looks credible yet doesn’t deliver the intensity or indeed convey that twitch on the thread heralding renunciation. It’s not fair she should: this is theatre, not close-up, yet time taken might yield more.

Vignettes however delight in a breeze of half-round characters. Nick Blakeley etches keenly righteous Father Mackay and oleaginous don Samgrass hired to manage Sebastian – his dismissal is manageable in a few words yet this third person to ‘betray’ Lady Marchmain (after Charles and Cordelia smuggle Sebastian drink) is left off suddenly where in truth his apostasy accelerates her death.

Blakeley however excels as Anthony Blanche the gay (here lightly) stuttering art critic providing sophisticated commentary on Sebastian and fatal charm, including damning Charles, a mostly superb scene where Blakeley sashays excommunication like a thread of sulphur through Charles’ fraudulently ‘scandalous’ paintings.

Paul Shelley is all Lord Marchmain should be, though as Charles’ father Mr Ryder he only enjoys the chilly scene where he affects not to understand his son’s financial straits; not the delightful one bestowing a generous allowance. It takes a few moments. Marchmain’s long dying is managed in high relief.

There’s good work too from Samantha Lawson as Lord Marchmain’s Italian mistress (‘he is dying of a long word’) and Charles’ faithless wife, and Kiran Sonia Sawar as Cordelia. Cordelia‘s crucial speech however is omitted. That it wasn’t Ned perhaps, not Sebastian’s brother Bridey who has a Vocation but Sebastian himself, a saint ultimately cared for by brothers in Tunis who’ll be found dying in the street and carried back. Thus Lavery’s trail from over-large black book and traceries of pietism seem wasted for a few words easily inserted.

Shuna Snow almost steals the show as awkward matchbox-obsessed Bridey, Sebastian’s hapless egomaniac lover Kurt who makes him feel needed, and egregious Canadian financer Rex Mottram who marries Julia early on. Cameos but taken exquisitely in a squirm of physical acting – a lope or limp for each character – just this side of caricature.

Such superb etchings don’t make the full-toned paintings Charles wishes to execute yet can’t because he’s fatally charmed by Englishness. Much the same might be said of this production. The novel and ITV series cast spells – this dramatisation would be unthinkable without the TV first – but taken at this clip Lavery’s expository script dogs actors with faithfulness, which at three points misses crucial detail. The last – after a fine death scene – is Charles’ own conversion. Lavery lets actions speak for once, with a simple gesture. Is it enough? I thought so till I heard others’ bafflement.

These omissions are easily remedied, and with these perhaps having dared to adapt a script already famous for its leisure, Lavery should beg our indulgence for another fifteen minutes and trust the story that’s so ridden her.