The Union theatres awkward repose under a Southwark railway arch, with its stage a horizontal ziggurat of corners and niches, presents a challenge to production design that is almost closer to site-specificity than it is to emplaced theatre.
And while this gives modest productions the opportunity to seize the architectural irregularity and define themselves accordingly, it is difficult for anything on a larger scale to stoop to the occasion. Unfortunate, then, that Alex Lovelesss adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguros novel is a piece of musical theatre that pays little heed to issues of scaling: written for an ensemble cast, with big dance numbers, choruses, and aristocratic settings.
Stevens is the butler at Darlington Hall, a colonial seat of power embroiled in the geopolitical intrigue of the 1930s. Struggling to serve his new master, a decidely non-u American, and conducting an unconsummated and unacknowledged relationship with the housekeeper Miss Kenton, Stevens begins to realise his lifelong service of aristocratic cultural institutions may have come at a cost to his humanity. The play is both a comedy of manners and a tragedy of the same.
But its poor old Darlington Hall that perhaps suffers the most. The set does what it can with a chunk of cornice and a chaise longues, but with the props crammed together comes of a little like an abstracted jumble sale. The loftier themes of the play suffer as a result. If the gradual decline of patrician culture is difficult to elaborate within a space that resembles a bedsit, then the scenes of global drawing room politics, its grand players strutting a patch of land which would have veal calves feeling slightly diminished, just feels risible. In place of a Habsburgian sense of scale – grandeur and dust – we get a kind of enthusiastic provincial rotting. There is a ramshackle and amateurish feel, which does for the plays theme of British gentleman amateurism by being too literal.
The cramped feeling is enhanced by Loveless’s guileless script, and his queuing up of musical numbers up like a DJ impatient to go home – the pace is jittery, and at times, shot to pieces. Here again scale comes to bear, as moments of dimension, such as the British betrayal of the continental Jews, or the relationship Stevens has with his father, are condensed and coarsened. Lovelesss brother Chris here directs, and compared to their last outing with Fallen Angel, a well-judged adaptation of Dracula at the White Bear, this feels like a mistake from the outset. The plays highlight is probably the moving song Close Your Eyes, where the use of space and songwriting finally come together in an elegantly structured lament to joblessness, but it is all too brief.
Its left to Stephen Rashbrook as Stevens to make sense of proceedings, with a deliberate and nuanced performance, which only sometimes errs too far on the side of passive as the rest of the cast muddle as best they can around him. Rashbrook has a face a bit like a powdered owl, all broad grey surfaces, which makes an excellent site for his portrayal of snobbery and deference, and while there are flashes of intelligence that hint at a simmer to Stevens obedient surface, there simply isnt the dimension there to scale the high emotional register of the closing scenes.
Better will come from everyone here, but this production simply tries to do too much, and in its exuberance it lacks the invention to adapt. Scale your expectations accordingly.