By Evelyn Waugh, adapted for stage by Bryony Lavery
Performed by the ETT in co-production with the York Theatre Royal
At the Oxford Playhouse
Spurred on and swaddled in an 8 year old’s soft memories of Anthony Andrews, loving his teddy and sporting a pastel sweater hung delightfully upon his shoulders, Team Family minus one, arrived at yesterday’s matinee clearly ready to see some fabulous 1920s outfits; a bear with a name; and an exploration into Man Friendship. Gratefully we got that and more, so much more.
Mummy issues were explored; insecurities were shared; artistic creativity included; the impact of war; but most fascinatingly for me, maybe as I didn’t get it or understand it the first time, the influence of religion, specifically Catholicism, can have on one’s life, not just in terms of the choices you make but the guilt you carry.
Somewhere in the fog of my limited memory I think I recall having a couple of discussions with my husband about Waugh as a writer and how religion was something he had an opinion on, but it wasn’t until yesterday’s show that I believe I’ve felt it as being so profoundly central to the story being told. I guess I tend to think of him as writer of horridly funny books which take the mickey like The Loved One or Vile Bodies, but maybe I missed the religious comments in those…Anyway, one thing’s for sure, I’ve added another book to the forever increasing must read bedside stack and now back to the yesterday’s production.
With limited staging and well considered props, Charles Ryder’s memories are shared simply and effectively. From the 1st Act where you are participating in imagining what he sees – an ornate fountain, a private chapel, a grand house that holds so many dear and real memories – your imagination fills in the necessaries and makes the stage more stuffed and filled with the kind of pieces you’d expect to find in a grand house then a design team could ever wish to detail.
And I just remembered a ripper scene where Charles and Julia are on a boat sailing across the Atlantic and not only is it moving in an emotionally enjoyable manner, the way they spin across stage with the assistance of some ropes and a pulley system – simple and extraordinary.
The casting is also very good, ‘Julia’ is guarded but loving; ‘Lady Marchmain’ detestable and thankfully not my mother; ‘Sebastian’ you just want to cuddle and remove him from the situation; and ‘Charles’, although hardly off stage, manages to present and inhabit a character whom is reversed, frustrated and a true friend, in the most believable way possible.
And the adaptation – picks up on the essentials. The memories are explored, a variety of places are visited, and time moves back and forth, without you ever being confused or feeling ‘You know what this doesn’t work’, because it does work. Lavery has taken a much loved book, TV series and movie, and turned it into a thoroughly enjoyable, thinking piece of live theatre.