Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day, is driven by the idiosyncrasies of its narrator Stevens, an obsessively servile butler.
His tortuously long sentences and repetitions make it a potentially tricky book to adapt for the stage, though it worked wonderfully in the Merchant Ivory film.
Barney Norris’ new version – a co-production between Northampton’s Royal and Derngate and Out of Joint – makes a decent job of it. The action interweaves scenes from Stevens’ (Stephen Boxer) journey around the West Country to visit his former colleague Miss Kenton (Niamh Cusack) with memories from his past spent working for the Nazi-sympathising Lord Darlington (Miles Richardson).
Throughout, Norris preserves tiny fractions of Ishiguro’s text (“dignity”, “simply a sentimental love story”). These bob up like place markers paying tribute to the original, but more often the adaptation deviates from its source material.
Boxer’s Stevens is more self-assured than Ishiguro’s chronically awkward hand-wringer. His behavioural traits, like following the reporting of a mutual acquaintance’s death with praise for the cucumber sandwiches, seem more the product of stiff-upper Englishness taken to extreme than the pathological eccentricities of an individual.
Off duty or on, Boxer’s chin is perpetually tilted towards the sky and his left arm magnetically attached to his lower back. His mannerisms are like those of an ex-soldier, one who walks into the corner shop like he’s going into battle.
In turn, Cusack’s Miss Kenton is witty and increasingly confident. The housekeeper’s exchanges with Stevens crackle with barely-concealed amusement and, at points, barely-concealed exasperation.
Christopher Haydon’s staging has an impressive, filmic beauty. Lily Arnold’s gorgeous set is a sliding montage of teal green and gold wall partitions. The embossed structures resemble neoclassical tombstones, as if this is all a graveyard for a lost era, accented with intermittent projections from Andrzej Goulding.
Despite this richness, Haydon’s staging remains steadfastly flat. Scenes float by without any building of tension, often robbing them of significance. For example, a drawn-out segment ending with Stevens’ true identity being revealed to a group of West Country locals, who mistook him for a lord, peters out into an amiable misunderstanding.
Most crucially, the doomed relationship between Stevens and Miss Kenton lacks poignancy or any particular impact. The inner turmoil of both characters is hard to detect, stripping their final tearoom reunion of any complexity.
All in all, the staging is a lot like Stevens himself: immaculately presented and painstakingly considered, but with a strange inability to express emotion.