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Brideshead Revisited review at Theatre Royal, York – ‘frustrating’

A scene from Brideshead Revisited at York Theatre Royal. Photo: Mark Douet Christopher Simpson and Brian Ferguson in Brideshead Revisited at York Theatre Royal. Photo: Mark Douet

Sally Cookson’s smart, soaring production of Jane Eyre, staged last year at the National Theatre, was brilliant in so many ways, not least because it made the case that, in the right hands, plot-heavy, complex novels can be made to live on stage.

Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 classic Brideshead Revisited might not occupy quite the same cultural space as Charlotte Bronte’s novel but it’s still fairly beloved, particularly for those with keen memories of Granada’s definitive 1980s television version, starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews.

This English Touring Theatre co-production with the Theatre Royal York, adapted for the stage by Bryony Lavery, on the surface at least, is doing something similar to Cookson – ditching the baggage, stripping away the cricket pitches and gleaming spires, placing Waugh’s characters on a plain pale stage and letting the story speak for itself. But Damian Cruden’s production lacks the confidence and skill of Cookson’s, and never really pins down the spirit of the book. We get little sense of the allure of the Marchmains, the Roman glow of youth, the glimmer of the between war period, the sense of ache and want which permeates those pages.

What we get instead is a series of choppy scenes performed against a black backdrop. This is always shifting, the aperture opening and closing to form a series of square windows (though which we glimpse an occasional passing monk, student or socialite). You can hear the squeak of the mechanism at work and it feels less like an aesthetic choice than something done for budgetary reasons.

As if to compensate for the minimal staging, there are some very broad performances, lots of over-done stuttering and drunken weaving, In contrast there’s an oddly muted quality to some of the playing. Christopher Simpson is sweet enough as Sebastian Flyte but he lacks both the flamboyance and pathos of the character. He also descends into a boozy stupor before we ever fully appreciate the nature of his relationship with fellow Oxford student and protagonist Charles Ryder.

This being Brideshead, it’s not long before we’re wallowing in communion wine. Interestingly Lavery’s adaptation feels more sure-footed in these later scenes, when its grappling with ideas of grace and faith, but it’s saying something when an extended deathbed sequence, while admittedly pivotal, is dramatically the most engaging moment a production has going for it. Brian Ferguson is a watchable enough as Ryder but his character is only ever a lens. The Marchmains remain distant figures as does Sebastian’s sister Julia despite getting more stage time. The intricate web of attraction between the characters is hard to discern, their world impenetrable. You can’t revisit a place you’ve never been.

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Choppy and frustrating page-to-stage adaptation of Waugh’s classic novel