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Review: The Remains of the Day (Royal and Derngate)

Barney Norris adapts Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker prize-winning novel

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Stephen Boxer and Niamh Cusack
© Iona Firouzabadi

"Je ne regrette rien," Edith Piaf once defiantly warbled. Well, others might easily retort, aren't you the lucky one. Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker prize-winning novel is utterly suffused with regret; regret for misguided actions taken and regret for lives not lived. This beautiful new adaptation by Barney Norris captures the sense of profound, poetic sadness perfectly.

More than simply a representation of the 1989 book on stage – and successfully sidestepping too close comparisons with the multi Oscar-nominated film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson – Norris' script is a thoroughly theatrical affair, making intelligent and effective use of intercut scenes, disorienting time shifts and powerfully dramatic moments.

Director Christopher Haydon and his design team, headed by Lily Arnold, exploit the possibilities for fascinating juxtapositions and revelatory contrasts, reinforced by a stunning but simple set of sliding panels in verdigris and gold which conceal or reveal significant people and tableaux. Mark Howland's lighting, Elena Peña's soundscape, Sophie Cotton's score and Andrzej Goulding's superb video projections all add exactly the right blend of ingredients to echo and enhance the storytelling.

Ishiguro's tale is, at one level, a study of class-ridden Englishness in a time gone by. But it's so much more than that, and the superficial narrative of the burgeoning friendship between the butler and housekeeper in a between-wars country house is merely a peg on which he and Norris hang a whole raft of delicately balanced ideas and subtleties.

Stephen Boxer looks like he's been preparing for this role all his life. He catches precisely the right combination of repression and duty as Stevens, the butler at the heart of the story. He's barely off-stage for the entire two hours and carries a huge weight, in terms of both providing the linchpin for the narrative and grounding the audience in wherever we're meant to be at any given moment. His stiff upper lip is enviable, making the rare slip into emotion all the more powerful.

Opposite him, Niamh Cusack has an air of quiet desperation as Miss Kenton, ever-optimistic about reaching through his upright demeanour, but also with one foot in the world outside the big house, giving her a perspective he can never achieve.

The eight-strong cast are all terrific, several of them doubling roles which they interchange in an instant. Miles Richardson, as the deluded, Nazi-appeasing lord of the manor and a jovial country doctor, and Stephen Critchlow, in the roles of a village pub barfly and a cruelly patronising aristocrat, have their switching down to an art.

No less impressive are Sadie Shimmin, Patrick Toomey and Pip Donaghy in their various ensemble parts, with a particularly affecting performance from Edward Franklin as the young idealist godson of Lord Darlington, who sees the perilous flaws in his godfather's arguments but is unable to tackle them.

It's a brilliantly paced, impeccably performed piece of theatre. If you get the opportunity to see it, either in Northampton or on tour, do take it. Or you might just regret it.