Review: Brideshead Revisited at York Theatre Royal

‘The amount of experience in the cast is staggering…’ Brideshead at York Theatre Royal. Photographs: Mark Douet
27 Apr 2016 @ 9.42 pm
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Brideshead Revisited

Theatre Royal, York

Until Sat April 30 @ 7.30pm; matinees 2pm Thurs April 28 and 2.30pm Sat April 30. Returns June 21 to 25


More details & book

I was very excited to be attending the Theatre Royal for the first time, having followed the progress of the refurbishment and archaeological discoveries with great interest.

The theatre closed shortly after I arrived in York last year, so I cannot compare the new version with the old.

I can, however, say that today it is a beautiful, well-planned venue with excellent sightlines, especially now that the majority of the floor in the stalls has been raked. I am reliably informed by my companion that the seats are very comfortable – I believe I am right in saying that slightly larger seats than previous have been installed.

An exciting theatre reopening calls for an ambitious play – Bryony Lavery’s stage adaptation of the great English novel, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Published in 1945, it tells the story of the aristocratic, Roman Catholic Marchmain family through the eyes of agnostic, middle class Charles Ryder.

Caroline Harker plays Lady Marchmain and Christopher Simpson as Sebastian Flyte
Caroline Harker plays Lady Marchmain and Christopher Simpson as Sebastian Flyte
Catholicism is at the centre of the story
Catholicism is at the centre of the story

Catholicism is a constant theme throughout the story; Waugh himself became a convert in 1930, and used this work to examine some of his own religious beliefs. This makes the novel sound very dull, which it certainly is not, due mainly to the extraordinary characters of the Marchmain family themselves.

Lord Marchmain, a lapsed Catholic convert, lives in Venice with his mistress, while the deeply devout Lady Marchmain divides her time between Marchmain House, in London, and their ornate stately home, Brideshead.

Their eldest son, Bridey, is the type of man who seems to have been born middle-aged. He is entirely lacking in a sense of humour, and enjoys collecting matchbook covers.

The youngest child, Cordelia, is a bright, endearing schoolgirl at the beginning of the story, devoted to her brother Sebastian, and immediately very fond of Charles.

The middle children, Sebastian and Julia, are the central characters alongside Charles Ryder. Sebastian is charming, eccentric and completely unreliable. Julia is cool and unattainable.

Charles falls in love with Sebastian, and with Julia, and this love is what drives the story.

Shuna Snow and Brian Ferguson
Shuna Snow and Brian Ferguson

Amazing staging

Because Brideshead Revisited is a story which unfolds over 20 years and a number of venues worldwide, I expected that the staging would be minimalistic. I was absolutely amazed by the clever way in which this was achieved.

Lighting and sound played their part – subtle effects like birdsong or ticking clocks, the effect of sunlight on water flickering on the set during the scenes in Venice – but especially the inventive and skilful use of sliding panels towards the rear of the stage.

The very back of the stage is a plain white wall on which colours can be projected. These colours can melt into one another, subtly change from one shade to another over the course of a scene, or be used to great effect to provide silhouetted figures in the background.

In front of this plain canvas are a set of black sliding panels – four which can be moved from left to right, one which moves up and down from the floor, and another which does the same from the flies above the proscenium arch.

Brian Ferguson and Nick Blakeley
Brian Ferguson and Nick Blakeley

The sheer variety of possible combinations of these panels and the lighting on the rear wall allows us to believe that we are anywhere from a rented room in Morocco, to an art gallery, to a ship in a storm crossing the North Atlantic.

This storm scene was particularly ingenious – a love seat, holding Charles and Julia, is hauled around the stage, back and forth, upstage and down, by a pair of men pulling on ropes attached to it.

The entire audience gasped when the seat was pulled so fast towards the edge of the stage that we thought it would shoot off into the stalls, only to be halted at the last moment and flung to another corner.

And while all this was happening, one panel slid slowly from one side to the other, mimicking the movement of the love seat until I felt quite seasick myself.

Ageing and moving

Cast of only nine
Cast of only nine

The other thing that characterises Brideshead is its huge number of different characters. These are portrayed by a cast of only nine, necessitating some breathtakingly quick costume changes.

One even happens in front of us – Shuna Snow is assisted in changing from Bridey, fussy and old-fashioned son of the house, into Rex Mottram, Julia’s self-absorbed Canadian husband, in the time it takes to rearrange the sliding panels behind her.

The costumes throughout are beautifully designed, and perfect for the time period and characters. Brian Ferguson’s transformation at the play’s opening from 1940s army officer to 1920s student, achieved purely by trading his greatcoat and peaked hat for an ordinary jacket, was particularly neat.

I must also mention the way the characters move – not just the comic stoop of Charles Ryder’s father’s servant, recalling memories of Julie Walters’ famous “Two soups…” waitress, but the way that each actor takes on a different style of movement for each character.

Christopher Simpson and Brian Ferguson
Christopher Simpson and Brian Ferguson

Even more impressive is the fact that these different styles are not fixed. People age 20 years in this story, and their walks and poses change accordingly. Some are obvious, like Kiran Sonia Sawar’s Cordelia Flyte changing from a bouncy schoolgirl, with pigtails flying, to a deeply thoughtful, serious woman.

Some are more subtle – the years gradually weigh more heavily on Brian Ferguson’s Charles Ryder and Rosie Hilal’s Julia Flyte. Their youthful diffidence warms slowly into a deep and complex relationship.

In many ways, Christopher Simpson (Sebastian Flyte) has the most complex change in his physical performance. He has to deteriorate from the boyish, egocentric charm of his first year at Oxford, to the wasted and selfish alcoholic, still drinking while hospitalised, at the beginning of Act Two.

Prestigious cast

The play covers 20 years
The play covers 20 years

The amount of experience in the cast is staggering. Reading the short biographies in the programme, the same prestigious theatre companies come up again and again – the RSC, Chichester Festival Theatre, the National Theatre, the Donmar Warehouse, the Old Vic, Shakespeare’s Globe.

There really isn’t a bad performance in the whole show. I must comment on Nick Blakeley’s performance as Anthony Blanche. He creates a character who is much more nuanced, and thus far less irritating, than that presented by Nickolas Grace in the 1981 TV serialisation. He also creates Father Mackay, with a plausible Scots accent, and the odious, ingratiating Samgrass.

Caroline Harker (Lady Marchmain and Nanny) handles the two rather different roles with the skill which you would expect from an actor of her calibre and experience. As with Samantha Lawson (Celia and Cara), it took me a while to realise that the two roles were being played by the same actor.

Paul Shelley (Lord Marchmain and Mr Ryder) excels himself, especially in Lord Marchmain’s deterioration and eventual death. The exact nature of the malady isn’t stated in the book, just: “His heart. Some long word at the heart. He is dying of a long word.”

My father died in 1989 of cardiomyopathy, and every time I have read the book since then, I have assumed that this is the “long word”.

Paul Shelley and Samantha Lawson
Paul Shelley and Samantha Lawson

When I spoke to Paul Shelley after the performance, he was gratified to hear that, although not knowing anything about that condition, he had recreated the symptoms absolutely perfectly – the struggle to breathe, the increasing gaps between each breath, the occasional flashes of lucidity between periods of unconsciousness. It moved me almost to tears.

This is the first time Brideshead Revisited has been adapted for the stage, although you may remember (as mentioned above) the award-winning TV serialisation. It used Castle Howard as the setting for Brideshead, as Evelyn Waugh himself had done when writing the novel.

The problem with adapting it as a single stage play is the length of the story, and the fact that each event links to others in a way which makes it very difficult to cut anything out without skewing the storyline.

I have always enjoyed Bryony Lavery’s work, especially her radio drama adaptations of complex books. In this instance, it saddens me greatly to say that she has not been successful.

Breakneck speed

Paul Shelley as Lord Marchmain on his deathbed
Paul Shelley as Lord Marchmain on his deathbed

In Act One, in an attempt to include all the necessary aspects of the narrative, the scenes flit by with almost breakneck speed. We really do not have enough time to engage with the characters, and so do not care as much as we should about what happens to them.

I followed the story because I know the book so well, but my companion had great difficulty. One couple near us did not return for the second half, and I overheard several interval conversations in which people tried to get straight in their own minds what had happened.

Act Two, on the other hand, is dominated by the lingering death of Lord Marchmain and the lengthy accompanying discussions about the nature of faith. The dizzying speed of Act One is replaced by complete torpidity, where nothing seems to happen for a very long time.

This is, of course, an accurate depiction of the experience of waiting by someone’s deathbed, but it does not make for good theatre.

Director Damian Cruden has brought us a wonderful cast, and created excellent and inventive staging. He is sadly let down by the actual structure of the script – Bryony Lavery is capable of so much better than this. I look forward to her return to form with her next play.


The revamped Theatre Royal has excellent accessibility. I am told that there are now more wheelchair spaces in the auditorium, which is good to hear. My space was in the Dress Circle, from which I had a perfect view of the entire stage.

There are level-entrance automatic doors from the street, and I was greeted by a member of staff who fetched my tickets from the box office, and showed me how to get to my wheelchair space.

There are lifts up to and including dress circle level, as well as a platform lift to the mezzanine bar area next to the main foyer. Accessible loos are well signposted. There are lights illuminating each tread of the steps in the auditorium, and all signage is very clear and easy to see.

There are plenty of staff everywhere, who are happy to assist when needed.