This adaptation of the E M Forster’s classic novel transports the audience back to a time of elegance, poise, and obvious class distinction. We meet Charlotte Bartlett (played by Felicity Kendal), a very prim spinster, who is chaperoning her young and somewhat naive cousin Lucy as they travel round Italy. They meet Mr Emerson and his son George, who gladly give up their rooms to provide the ladies with the view that they might truly deserve. Amongst the contrasting beauty and the darker side of Florence, and despite their obvious class difference, Lucy and George find themselves drawn to each other – and eventually succumb to a passionate clinch, witnessed by Charlotte. The play then rests on how their story will unfold once they return to England.
It's more years than I care to remember since I last saw Felicity Kendal live on stage, at the National Theatre. She was terrific then, and nothing has changed: she was just as good in this production, and as always, seemed effortless in her delivery of her character. Her portrayal of the angsty, over-emotional yet somewhat earthy Charlotte was fabulous, absorbing other actors’ emotions and indulging in their characters’ stories, all to fuel her own dramatic re-telling and somewhat over-the-top reactions.
Playing cousin Lucy, Lauren Coe gave a similarly accomplished performance – slightly precocious, notably ungrateful – and the quick rapport between the two characters set the tone of the play. Lucy's other love interest, Cecil Vyse (Charlie Anson), was indeed “absolutely intolerable” (in a good way of course), and Simon Jones was thoroughly watchable as Mr. Beebe, capturing the quintessential essence of the English vicar abroad. In fact, Jones offered the highlight for me, as some of the male characters went bathing; the scene that followed was a welcome moment of lightness and laughter for the audience. Even if completely naked, it seems a vicar still needs to keep his dog-collar on.
The set was simple, with music and lighting used to good effect, and the church scene was particularly striking. But if I'm honest, at times it was hard to avoid a mental contrast with familiar images from the sumptuous film of the same name. And on this first night at the Theatre Royal, some of the movement did feel a little clumsy and some of the dialogue a little nervy; hopefully such concerns will ease as the run continues here.
Where this production most impresses, however, is in presenting a love story that exposes what is genuinely meaningful in people's lives. The truth of loving another man or woman – no matter what the differences between you might be – is exposed and celebrated. The prim, uptight etiquette witnessed in the opening scene has fallen away by the time the curtain comes down, and we can appreciate that some characters at least have truly “learned what it is to love”.