Brideshead Revisited, Richmond Theatre ★★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited is probably better known, and more beloved, because of the sumptuous 1981 ITV adaptation by John Mortimer than because of the novel itself. Even Waugh, writing in 1950, described the gluttony of its pre-war nostalgia as “distasteful”. But a half century on, the story of Oxford student Charles Ryder’s troubled friendship with the various children of the aristocratic Marchmain family offers a richer account of the English upper class than it is generally given credit for.

The book’s subtitle, The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, drives Bryony Lavery’s adaptation. Even before the opening scene, the auditorium is abuzz with snippets of dialogue and sounds, as if leaking out from Ryder’s subconscious. Save for some overlapping of characters and scenes right at the beginning, though, the story is told a conventionally linear format, Brian Ferguson’s Charles narrating as he goes.

The biggest surprise for a story which is traditionally dominated by Brideshead, the stately country seat of the Marchmains, is the sparse staging of Sara Perks’s design. A raked, pale wooden stage is backed by an illuminated backdrop, obscured by a succession of moving black flats to provide a variety of illuminated splashes of colour. The effect is unsettling at first, a very contemporary look that jars against the period costumes. It’s a staging which demands stronger characterisation from the cast, and that is something with which this production tends to struggle.

Christopher Simpson’s Sebastian, the precocious and attractive young man who ensnares Charles and draws him into his family’s dysfunction, is suitably charismatic here, the sort of luminescent spirit who can somehow get away with the most appalling behaviour. Simpson and Ferguson express well the complexity of their friendship, a pseudo-fraternal relationship tinged with sexual attraction. Less successful is each man’s relationship with Sebastian’s sister Julia (Rosie Hilal). The triangle of those three characters is central to Brideshead Revisited‘s story, but here there feels little justification for Sebastian’s jealousy, or that in later life, the older Charles and Julia would fall in love. And when this relationship is the central driver of the second act’s plot, it makes one yearn for the memory of the first act in ways that may be a little postmodern, given the story’s nostalgic elements but are probably not intentional.

Lavery’s script does condense Waugh’s novel nicely, and Damian Cruden’s direction has a couple of nice touches – introducing the Marchmain family as if they are presented in a portrait gallery, for instance, or the portrayal of a stormy sea passage by propelling the cast around the stage on a love seat on wheels. But elsewhere there are elements of hesitancy and a lack of sure-footedness that fatally draw the audience out of the imagined world. What helps draw us back in are a series of fine supporting performances, from Nick Blakeley’s Anthony Blanche to Kiran Sonia Star’s precocious Cordelia.

For all its faults, this adaptation of Brideshead Revisited is an engaging evening. It is refreshing to see a classic novel staged in a contemporary way, even if such staging is not wholly successful.

Photo: Mark Douet