One could hardly disapprove of all these various versions of the same story because most of them were successful on their own level. By that token then it is good to welcome a musical version of “The Remains of the Day”, perhaps because it doesn’t ruin one’s recollections of the book or the film. Adding the songs in the way that Alex Loveless has done help the story along mainly in a through-composed way that explains both the thoughts and emotions of the characters involved. It succeeds where a similar piece like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Aspects of Love” doesn’t. The lyrics in “The Remains of the Day” are not banal but are still conversational in the way that Stephen Sondheim writes in, say, “Company”, “Assassins” or “Sweeney Todd”.
The main action of “The Remains of the Day” is set between the two World Wars, although the story is told in flashback from the 1950s as Stevens, once devoted butler to the late Lord Darlington but now with Mr Farraday, a wealthy, brash American employer, who has bought Darlington Hall. Stevens receives a letter from Miss Kenton, his former housekeeper some twenty years before at the Hall, which hints at an unhappy marriage. When Farraday tells Stevens to take a motoring holiday in his car, he decides to visit Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn) on the pretext of re-employing her at Darlington Hall. When they worked together they kept their relationship on a purely professional level, even though they obviously both had feelings for each other, feelings that could never be expressed at the time.
The portrait of Stevens is of a man so buttoned-up emotionally and obsessed with his work that he cannot let anything else into his life. Every task must be carried out with dignity, nothing must impinge on the job at hand, the public front of propriety is all-important and there must be nothing unseemly or strange to upset the work to be done at Darlington Hall. This attitude makes him ignore what is going on around him. He unquestioningly supports Lord Darlington and refuses to even think about his employer’s support of people like Oswald Mosley and his support for anti-Semitism, considering it to be none of his business. His business is to keep Darlington Hall running smoothly. His blindness to Darlington’s politics and his refusal to accept any form of romantic approach from Miss Kenton or anybody else may make him a good employee but less of a man. Stevens’s motoring trip allows him to evaluate his life but by then it is too late. Miss Kenton has grown to love her husband after all, which leaves Stevens ultimately alone, thinking not only about the remains of the day, this day, but also about the remains of his life.
The songs, a mixture of lively music and more contemplative ballads, set the scene well and provide a suitable atmosphere for the narrative. Scored for woodwind and strings, it has a delightfully plangent quality in Rowland Lee’s arrangements. David Shields’s settings and Chris Lince’s lighting evoke the darkness of Darlington Hall, a place steeped in repression. Darlington cannot even bring himself to tell his son ‘the facts of life’ and asks Stevens, of all people, to do the job for him, but it’s the one task the butler cannot fulfil. The ambience at the Hall is one that Stevens totally ignores even to accepting unquestioningly when Darlington tells him to dismiss two of his staff who happen to be Jewish. It is not only Stevens who is devoid of feelings, even anti-Jewish ones, for he makes his whole world a place of emotional desolation.
Steven Rashbrook is excellent at creating a man with little or no soul who would rather die than experience embarrassment, who shuts people out if they are going to upset his working routine, ignoring their feelings in the process. Lucy Bradshaw as Miss Kenton tries to fight her way through the barrier that prevents Stevens from being a fallible human being. The actress gives the part a nicely honed edge and, perhaps surprisingly in the context of the plot, creates a believable relationship. A good supporting cast double-up in various roles including Alan Vicary as Lord Darlington, Christopher Bartlett as his son Reginald, and Dudley Rogers as Stevens’s father. Omar F. Okai’s choreography helps to establish the period feel of the piece and Chris Loveless’s unfussy direction lets the cast and the text get to the heart of the matter. It is in essence a charming piece, subtly and movingly played without making it at all overwrought. It is not often that new musicals are instantly successful. “The Remains of the Day” seems to be an exception that works from first word to last.
- The Remains of the Day is at the Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, Southwark, London SE1 until Saturday 25 September 2010: Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m.; matinees Sunday at 2.30
- Tickets: 020 7261 9876