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Brideshead Revisited’s Nuffield Theatre Southampton and on tour – Review

Brian Ferguson (Charles) Rosie Hilal (Julia)
Brian Ferguson (Charles) Rosie Hilal (Julia) in Brideshead Revisted

It is not so much the 400 page length of Brideshead Revisited that makes Evelyn Waugh’s novel a challenge for adapters but the range of characters and events all of which are arguably essential to the plot. Granada Television, in its definitive TV version in the early 1980s, resolved this by leaving virtually nothing out. The series spread over 11 episodes and seven hours! Such an option is not, of course, open to anyone seeking to make a stage play of the book – so unless it is to be highly selective with characters and key scenes discarded another solution has to be found. Bryony Lavery, the author/adapter of the play of the book now on tour in an English Touring Theatre / York Theatre Royal production, has resolved the dilemma cleverly and successfully.

Most, if perhaps not quite all, of Waugh’s characters and key plot elements are present in this play. They are, however, represented by brief extracts rather than by the full scene from the book (or, indeed, the TV Series). So the early and crucial part of the story at Oxford has Sebastian’s emetic arrival, the lunch with the plovers’ eggs which also introduces Anthony Blanche, Charles’s first visit to Brideshead and the Chapel and Nanny Hawkins (and so on) but all as brief vignettes. For aficionados of the novel this is not a problem – we mentally fill in the missing bits. But I did wonder whether anyone who is not familiar with the story from either the book of the TV Series (or both) would “get it”.

The pace of the production, the minimalist staging, the limited but clever props all contribute to making this an engaging couple of hours which authentically tells Waugh’s story. Do we also "fill in" Oxford, or Tangier or an ocean liner in our mind’s eye? I think that we do. Venice is represented by a pole marking the place where the gondolas pick up customers. The Brideshead Chapel by a large cross. But we do get a realistic big bed for Lord Marchmain’s death scene – that crucial ending of the story which brings to the fore the religious aspect which had hitherto been subtext and reveals it to be arguably what the whole novel is about. Charles Ryder’s conversion from agnostic to Catholic is only alluded to in the book but is rather more explicit in the play when he genuflects and crosses himself in front of the crucifix at the end.

Charles Ryder is a semi-autobiographical portrait by Evelyn Waugh – the impecunious middle class boy in a rich upper class world, the failed early marriage, the soldier looking at the absurdity of the Army, the artist in a world of philistines. Waugh moved from agnosticism to Catholicism in the 1930s – well before he wrote Brideshead – which makes his description of the puzzlement at what he finds in the upper class Catholic family honest and revealing. This is outstandingly well done in the play as Charles moves from bewilderment to anger (when Julia wants to bring in a priest in extremis to her lapsed Catholic father) but eventually to the faith himself.

The performances are very good and the actors get into their roles (for some multiple roles) convincingly. A special mention for Christopher Simpson’s fine Sebastian and Kiran Sonia Sawar’s nicely pitched Cordelia. The casting fell down on Aloysius the Bear though – he was a bit too large for the part! Director Damian Cruden has achieved a really authentic version of Brideshead Revisited as adapted by Bryony Lavery. The audience at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton was a bit sparse – I hope that the word gets around and that the houses are full as it moves around the country before arriving in London at Richmond Theatre at the end of June.

4 stars

Review by Paddy Briggs

Brideshead Revisited
English Touring Theatre and York Theatre Royal

English Touring Theatre and York Theatre Royal bring their elegant, evocative and vivid adaptation of the much loved Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh to Nuffield.

It’s 1943 and, finding himself in familiar territory within the English countryside, Charles Ryder confronts memories of his first youthful encounter with Brideshead Manor and with its assortment of eccentric inhabitants.

This world premiere, by the acclaimed playwright Bryony Lavery, is a sparkling reimagining of this classic novel. The past and the present blur as Charles recalls those heady days at Brideshead and Lord and Lady Marchmain, along with their offspring Julia, Cordelia and Sebastian, begin to re-emerge…


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