Review: The Remains of the Day, Union Theatre

“Is it foolish to wait for the day that will never come”

You have to admire the ambition currently on display at the Union Theatre. Writing a new musical is hard enough at the best of times, but when your source material is a Booker-Prize-winning novel which has already had a much loved film adaptation made, then there’s quite a challenge ahead. But that is what Alex Loveless has taken on with his adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

Telling the story of Stevens in post WWII England, a long-serving butler to the late Lord Darlington who is struggling to deal with his new American employer, he identifies the solution as being retrieving a former colleague from Cornwall, Miss Kenton. As he sets off on a road-trip to try and persuade her, he also goes on a journey through his memories of the inter-war period where we discover that his employer was uncomfortably sympathetic to the Nazis and that his relationship with Miss Kenton ran far far deeper than that of just butler and housekeeper.

As Stevens and Miss Kenton, Stephen Rashbrook and Lucy Bradshaw are perfectly cast. Rashbrook displays the emotional restraint of a man who knows nothing aside from a life of servitude and dealt with transmitting this through the medium of song rather well (though there were moments when the sound drowned him out). As Miss Kenton, Bradshaw however is allowed to burst free from her emotional shackles occasionally, her playful scenes teasing Stevens over his reading material were joyous and her beautiful voice filled the Union perfectly, she is just excellent throughout.

If anything, I wish the show concentrated even more on their relationship. The first half is mostly taken up with Lord Darlington’s politicking which I just didn’t find as engaging. Partly because the characterisation of Darlington was a little weak, but also because Loveless’ ballads and rousing ensemble numbers are much stronger than the upbeat songs that dominated here.

Throughout the ensemble, there was not a weak link to be found performance-wise: Reuben Kate making an assured UK debut with two strong characterisations, two good accents and one powerful voice; Katia Sartini and Gemma Salter tugging at the heartstrings with their beautiful duet Close Your Eyes and Dudley Rogers impressing as both the frail Stevens Senior and a charming cameo as a friendly passerby later on.

There’s a fair amount of dancing in the show and it is well executed throughout, the girls’ routine to ‘The End of the Pier’ was great fun. But to be frank, I did not feel that much of it was well incorporated into the production or indeed that it was strictly necessary. The representation of the passage of time through a series of dances was clumsy and the dance sequence inserted into the finale was badly placed, sapping the emotion from what should have been a highly moving ending. I would have placed the final dance section at the beginning of the finale thus allowing the vocal reprises to ratchet up the emotion through to the end.

The staging was relatively simple, evoking the dusty grandeur of an abandoned stately home well, but the arrangement with seating on two sides and the band tucked away behind the far wall of the set means that the space in the Union is not utilised to its full advantage. The action is often pushed too far forward resulting in some blocking issues, one song had me watching the backs of six men for too long.

The Remains of the Day is not perfect, but there are moments in here which are simply lovely. It is so nice to see a musical playing it perfectly ‘straight’ as it were, there’s no tiresome self-referencing or arch post-modern irony here, just a strong set of performances, an engaging central storyline and some lovely ballads.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes
Programme : £1
Booking until 25th September

14 thoughts on “Review: The Remains of the Day, Union Theatre

  1. Saw the first show on Thursday, admittedly a preview, but you couldn't hear a word Stevens was singing. The band was far too loud and he was wasn't projecting at all.
    Not sure what to make of it really. Had no idea what to expect, and thought some bits worked but agree that it loses interest when not focused on the relationship.

  2. Really enjoyed this on Thursday and thought it had flashes of real brilliance. So good I'm going to see it again in spite of some flaws.

  3. I'm intrigued!

    This show has got a four star review from the Evening Standard , a mixed review from The Stage , and an absolute stinker from the Financial Times.

    The bizarre thing about the FT review, apart from being written by the Jazz critic, is that is was published date stamped before the preview (Thursday according to Anon 12.46 above). Very strange! Have all these critics seen the same show?

    I'll be able to form my own opinion when I see it next week.

  4. Went and saw this tonight. I would have to agree that at some points I wanted to find whomever was playing the flute or recorder or whatever wind instrument it was and forcibly remove it as it was drowning out some of the singers. On the whoe it was brilliant though. Was true to the book and yet still brought a little humour and the odd tear.

  5. A mixture of reviews is nothing unusual, just because there's a bad one doesn't mean excuses should be made: can't imagine the FT would fabricate a review.
    Am a fan of Lucy Bradshaw and very much enjoyed her, but as others have pointed out, Rashbrook is stuck between a rock and a hard place, he can't belt his songs out because he's supposed to be the epitome of repression but with the music is just ridiculously loud at time. Having the MD out of sight can't help with that.
    A 2.5 out of 5 for me.

  6. Thought most of the show was very disjointed. Songs slammed in for the sake of a song. Too many songs. Very male dominated. Would have worked better as a play. Annoying performance from an American character. Didn't buy a programme as didn't want to spend one pound on a few bits of A4.

  7. I thought on the whole that it was brilliant! Great music, great acting and a great set.
    Bad points: Some scenes were way too short but they did get to the point. Performances were all good except I do have to agree with the comment above, the American (Rueben Kay) really got annoying and it seemed he was in a different show to the others.

  8. Was the director on crack when he put the choreography in? It makes no real sense in terms of the whole show.
    And having a lead woman who gets to sing just a song and a half in the second act is poor planning.

  9. Cripes, what a lot of comments!
    I do think that perhaps the show should have run with a few more previews before opening. That way, some of the issues could have been ironed out before opening night. But it is important not to forget that this is a brand new musical and as such will naturally evolve and respond to what works and what doesn't anyway.

  10. a flawed show, but one with serious potential. Second half stronger than the first. Several killer numbers, 'Close Your Eyes' and 'The Way That Once We Were' stood out. As a whole well worth seeing. First 10mins are the weakest.

  11. Looks like further into the run some tweaks have been made and some work done. Tonight no issues with the sound balance. Yes there still needs to be a bit of work here and there but nothing too major.

  12. I loved this show when I saw it at the weekend. It has so much potential. Hopefully someone with vision will knock it into shape to turn it into a muscial theatre classic.

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