Staging Evelyn Waugh's 1945 classic novel was always going to be a challenge. Many people will remember the sumptuous eleven-week television production in the early eighties – which shot Anthony Andrews, a small teddy bear and Jeremy Irons to fame. Sadly, this new stage adaptation by Bryony Lavery struggles to match that stellar precedent.
The year is 1943, and Charles Ryder (Brian Ferguson) finds himself back in the countryside revisiting Brideshead Castle, taking a nostalgic trip down memory lane. The story unfolds in flashback scenes of Ryder as a young man studying at Oxford, and his subsequent relationships with the family who owned the castle: primarily with fellow student Sebastian Flyte (Christopher Simpson).
That connection between Charles and Sebastian is the core of the narrative, and sadly, I didn’t find the innuendo-filled hints of a homosexual relationship all that convincing. Simpson just isn’t flamboyant or outrageous enough to be believable in the role of the hedonistic Sebastian; while Ferguson’s portrayal of Charles lacked a little charisma too, and his constant narrative asides to the audience grew tedious after a while.
However, the parts of Bridey Flyte and Rex Mottram were a highlight. Both of these male roles are played by Shuna Snow, whose characterisation and mannerisms were so well executed that it was hard not to be drawn in by her whenever she was on stage.
In the end though, the structure of the piece confused me. The initial set-up, with characters wandering on and off stage to the accompaniment of hard-to-decipher echoing voices, was difficult to follow and didn’t pack the dramatic punch it was intended to. The adaptation opens up all sorts of avenues which it doesn’t pursue, and there are few real satisfactory closures. And while the sparse, minimalistic set was interesting, dominated by sliding doors that continuously open up to create a new picture, I found the idea over-done and jarring after a while.
“Charm is the great English blight,” one of the characters suggests. This production attempts to capture a snapshot of quintessential Englishness – but the charm, sadly, is lacking for me.