Ian McEwan‘s first novel is a claustrophobic, haunting affair, spinning a disturbing tale that lingers long in the mind. Adapters Jimmy Osborne and David Aula have attempted to reproduce this sensation in the suitably atmospheric surroundings of the tunnels under Waterloo Station, meeting with mixed success. Theirs is a playful adaptation, with plenty of inventive touches, but these colourful fragments fail to cohere into a convincing whole.
The plot of the original is faithfully rendered, following the lives of four orphaned children and their gradual retreat into a world of their own making. When their mother’s demise quickly follows the death of their father, the siblings decide to entomb her corpse in the cement of the title and hide it in the cellar, insulating themselves from the hostile society that they fear will separate them. At the centre of the narrative is 15-year-old Jack, whose sexual frustrations find a focus in the form of his older sister Julie. It is clear, as the hot summer wears on, that none of this can end well.
There are two key framing devices for Osborne and Aula’s adaptation. The first is the decision to view the unfolding events retrospectively through the eyes of Tom, the youngest of the four siblings. This is a canny choice, giving an excuse for Jack’s mode of telling and allowing him to adopt the swaggering persona of showman that is so suited to his self-absorption. The second is the framing of the space itself, whose fascinating architecture offers the theatre makers two levels to play with and a structure which seats the audience almost uncomfortably close to the action.
Although smart enough in theory, neither of these two devices quite comes to fruition. The function of the older Tom is under-explained and under-exploited, leaving actor David Annen to spend much of the performance simply gazing forlornly at proceedings. The arrangement of the space, meanwhile, is frequently clumsy; audience members are forced to crane their necks or switch attention sharply from one end of the room to the other, without any real justification for these staging choices.
This clumsiness is not helped by the unevenness elsewhere, as muted naturalism butts up against self-consciously stylised movement and lighting. The cast struggle valiantly to craft meaningful characters from the mishmash of performance styles that has been imposed on the production, with George MacKay and Ruby Bentall making a striking central pairing as Jack and Julie, but too often it is difficult to get on board with their journeys. Unlike the sickening power of the novel, which makes a reader feel that they can almost smell the rotten scent that clings to the house, this version has little of the creeping horror that McEwan so adeptly conveys.
The Cement Garden runs at VAULT Festival until 8 March.