Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Remains of the Day, a work of unreliable first-person narration featuring a plot woven together by strands of memory, might present several challenges for the stage. But Barney Norris’ adaptation of it at the Cambridge Arts Theatre – despite some puzzling flashbacks and the occasionally stilted scene transition – manages to capture the bittersweet melancholy that permeates this story of undeclared love.
Stevens (Stephen Boxer), an ageing butler of the once renowned Darlington Hall, embarks on a week-long road trip with the aim of recruiting Miss Kenton (Niamh Cusack), former colleague and “lady-friend”, as his new master teasingly jokes, to his “staffing-plan”. Boxer conveys Stevens’ emotional restraint through his stiff posture, his measured and meticulous delivery, and his masked facial expressions. For Stevens, talking to Miss Kenton over a mug of coco in the evening is a “most effective innovation”; having to explain the “facts of life” becomes a task of “conveying the information to the young gentleman”. Cusack’s Kenton, by contrast, is buzzing, passionate, and flirtatiously playful. But when she confronts Stevens for his unquestioned obedience to Lord Darlington, who becomes increasingly involved in morally dubious foreign affairs, she is stern, defiant, and utterly convincing.
Lily Arnold’s set design has a modest grandeur to it: the slightly murky mirrors which veer between translucent and opaque, the faintly peeling plaster of the teal-grey walls rimmed with gold, and the plain wooden furniture on the fringes of the stage echo the decline of the manor house. Both Stevens – one from the 1950s travelling in the West Country, and the other from the 1930s working for Lord Darlington – inhabit the same space. At times, these temporal boundaries are marked ostentatiously by Elena Peña’s orchestral and clock-ticking soundtrack; at others, gentle shifts in lighting under the direction of Mark Howland indicate Stevens’ reliving of a past conversation. However, for someone who is unfamiliar with the text, the subtlety with which the production achieves this effect might cause some confusion. When this is less successful, scenes flit before you, and the narrative fragments into a series of loosely linked episodes.
But the sincerity of the lead actors, especially Boxer’s frustratingly accurate depiction of Stevens’ incapacity to say anything at the right time – or anything at all – will draw you in. Although avid fans of The Remains of the Day might question the adapted ending, which, without giving away too many spoilers, provides a more tragic vision of Stevens, it acquires a poignancy and a fittingness of its own. We often hear ourselves echoing Stevens: “I am busy just now, but in a little while”. But business isn’t everything; this experimentally realist production might teach you something after all.