Roger Parsley and Andy Graham have ignored Merchant-Ivory’s cinematic take on EM Forster’s seminal coming-of-age tale Maurice in favour of splicing and dicing the material for their own medium, the stage.
Their adaptation, directed with a light touch by Tim McArthur, does its best to cram in a story that spreads easily across pages but which, here as a play and especially in the episodic first half, would have been the better for some judicious pruning.
The action takes place over time and space amid Prav Menon-Johansson’s functional, no-nonsense design of neutral creams and whites. As with the film, the story opens in Edwardian England with a stilted conversation on a beach between Maurice and his schoolmaster about the birds and the bees. “The sacred mystery of sex,” as the schoolmaster calls it, remains rather mysterious despite his efforts at explanation.
It is from here that Maurice’s journey to awareness and acceptance of his homosexuality begins. As Maurice, Adam Lilley is convincing and measured as a privileged if undistinguished everyman, tackling as best he can the challenges life throws in his path. Lilley imbues his character with few individualist features; here is a uniform product of the public school system, blessed with a well-to-do family background and no particular thoughts of his own.
At Cambridge we join Maurice and his fellow students Durham (an ebullient Rob Stott brightly foiling Lilley’s dispassion) and Risley as they discuss such weighty matters as the Trinity and Plato’s teachings. In no time at all Durham falls for Maurice, and in short order is reciprocated, but Maurice is then sent down for cutting lectures. The two friends continue to meet at the Durham country seat, but Durham begins to see that their relationship endangers their positions within society, breaks with Maurice and marries. This sets in motion a (shorter, more involving) second act where Maurice embarks on further transgressions of society’s norms by crossing the class divide for the charms of Scudder (Stevie Raine), a sympathetic gamekeeper at the Durham estate.
In the second half, a cameo role for Jonathan Hansler as the hypnotist Lasker Jones allows a pause for breath in Maurice’s tale of sexual awakening, bringing on board matters beyond the personal as the character comments on homosexuality in the England of the day. In the film, Jones’s line “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature” was enunciated by Ben Kingsley to hammer home the point. By contrast, Hansler’s quirky, furtive approach to his character causes the line instead to be a pithy throwaway that raises titters.
Such moments of levity are welcome, though his approach is indicative of a production that more often than not – in stark contrast to the Merchant-Ivory adaptation – goes for laughs. Such levity is all but essential in keeping an audience entertained for three hours. In this sense, with Forster’s words McArthur and his able cast begin between a rock and a hard place, but it’s somewhere they do everything they can to make their own.