The Union Theatre is a rundown little place, quiet but for the occasional rumbling of a train passing on the railway arches overhead – an inapt setting for Kazuo Ishiguro’s story, which takes place in a grand house during the 1920s. The book is quiet and subtle, narrated solely by Stevens (Stephen Rashbrook), a repressed old butler preoccupied with upper-crust manners and polite conversation. The poignant tragedies of class divisions are gradually revealed, punctuated by powerful moments when long-suppressed feelings seep through cracked facades of propriety.
So it is almost bizarre or, as the author himself called it, “surreal” for The Remains of the Day to be staged as a musical – a form connoting colour, loudness and over-expressiveness.
Cheesy grins and a duff opening note set Alex Loveless’s musical off to a rickety start. Singing about the “open road”, “promised land” and not “censuring any sense of fun” would have made Ishiguro’s butler wince. As it was, the audience cringed instead. Sudden flamboyant chorus dance sequences stamped out any chance of a smoothly gathering momentum, and Omar Okai’s choreography was a mishmash of styles, from traditional ballroom to knicker-flashing high kicks.
The book’s themes – among them the looming threat of fascism – were painfully overstated in a production in which naturalism sat uneasily with caricature (a stereotypical Frenchman, a shouting match of a political debate). Potentially poignant moments were fatally undermined by underdeveloped relationships. When Stevens watches his father dying, director Chris Loveless has them both singing trite lyrics at full throttle (not quite dying yet, then), and an out-of-tune violin during a sad song from housekeeper Miss Kenton (Lucy Bradshaw) made us wonder whether it was the musical din, not frustrated love, that was making her cry.
It was hard to keep sight of Rashbrook’s admirable performance amid all the scuffle. Save for one glimmering comic duet from him and Christopher Bartlett (as young toff Reginald), the production really was, as the final song concluded, “the heartbreak and pains of/The remains of the day”, in spite of brave attempts from Rashbrook and Bradshaw to make sense of the whole thing. () www.theremainsoftheday.com