The Remains Of The Day – Union Theatre

While for a time musical theatre went through the ‘bigger is better’ phase, recent productions have shown that small can be equally beautiful. Playing at the tiny Union Theatre in Southwark, The Remains of The Day turns out to be a charming musical piece.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of English country house repressed emotions, immortalised in the classic Merchant Ivory film, seems at first glance an unlikely choice for a musical adaptation with the musical form seemingly at odds with the subject matter. It was then with some apprehension that the first trip to the Union Theatre was made. Thankfully The Remains Of The Day turns out to be a revelation, a moving and evocative chamber musical.

At its heart this is a story of unrequited love and stifled emotional yearning under the formality of service as Lord Darlington’s longstanding butler, Stevens, begins to realise that housekeeper Miss Kenton is perhaps more than just a colleague.

There are also darker undercurrents at work in this story of light and shade, with questions of duty over family, country over morals, and the rise of Fascism all playing their divisive role.

Central to the success of this show are two remarkably strong performances by Lucy Bradshaw and Stephen Rashbrook as Kenton and Stevens, both giving wonderfully restrained deliveriers, hinting at the bottled-up emotions simmering just below the surface. When both meet many years later to finally admit to the feelings that have long been hidden, it is a scene of incredibly intensity.

This is more than a two person show, however, and the whole company work well together to convey the period atmosphere.

Alex Loveless’ score proves to be a delight, managing to convey period atmosphere without resorting to musical cliché. While covering a wide spectrum from dance numbers to musical comedy, it is perhaps in the haunting and wistful ballads that the score most succeeds. The hymn-like Now As Evening Falls, Miss Kenton’s distraught The Way That Once We Were, and the gut-renching duet by two expelled Jewish servants – Close Your Eyes – especially stand out.

This is by no means a perfect musical and some revisions are needed if this show is to fully succeed. While the majority of the musical numbers work, some of the darker numbers regarding his Lordship’s sympathies need more attention. Director Chris Loveless might also look at some scene transitions that at times seem abrupt and rushed. Omar F. Okai’s choreography, while exuberantly performed by the company on the tiny stage, never seems fully integrated into the show.

Overall, however, The Remains Of The Day is an accomplished work, complimenting both book and film. With a few minor revisions this show should be assured of a successful future but while a larger stage would obviously benefit the show, care needs to be taken not to lose its intimate charm.

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