Independent Theatre
Goodwood Institute Theatre
Until 25 Nov 2017

Review by John Wells

There is a moment of telling directorial confidence early on in Independent Theatre’s sporadically excellent production of “Brideshead Revisited”: when Charles Ryder (Will Cox) kisses Sebastian Flyte (Ben Francis), it is a kiss of longing, love and gentle carnality. Director Rob Croser makes it very clear that this is a real relationship, not just a fey, platonic friendship. It’s more than teddy bears and strawberries. The seriousness and weightiness of this love underpins the other intractable and tragic relationships that enliven and ultimately ruin Charles. Croser pitches this production as a love story: love that charms, entrances and bedevils, as well as a love that ensnares, corrodes and disappoints.

Bringing Evelyn Waugh’s layered and complex novel to the stage is a momentous task. There is a lot to get through – the dominant themes of the grip of faith (and Roman Catholicism in particular), the way charmed beauty can entrap, the undeserving acceptance of grace, and an outsider’s conversion, can’t all be squeezed into a play without some superficiality and broad sketchiness. Subtlety and nuance is sacrificed. The unevenness of this production is largely due to Roger Parsley’s script; the first half crackles along briskly, but the later scenes drag and slow the momentum. Some scenes flow with economy and emotional precision, while others are stolid and lack a sense of lightness and sensitivity. The play is long – over three hours running time – but feels under-written in some parts.

The real successes of this production are Charles’ two doomed loves: Sebastian and his sister Julia. At the heart of this is a singularly impressive performance by Cox. Cox is utterly believable the curious, love-seeking young man who crosses the threshold of the “low door in the wall” into the “enclosed and enchanted garden” of eroticism, spirituality and decadence. Cox perfectly captures Charles’ bemused attraction and emotional engagement with the Flyte family. His scenes with Francis shimmer with doubt, delight and the lure of hedonism. Charles’ love for Julia, after Sebastian has dissolved into alcoholism, is full of broken desire and confusion. This is a delicate and sustained performance from Cox; there cannot be a better young actor on Adelaide amateur stages at the moment.

Francis shows Sebastian’s immediate attractiveness; he is entertaining and bewitching. The early scenes between Cox and Francis are the best of the play. Francis plays Sebastian as infantile and petulant, without the louche dangerousness that makes Sebastian so beguiling. He does not quite succeed in revealing Sebastian’s underlying turmoil. Madeleine Herd brings a brisk carelessness to Julia. This too, is a controlled and emotionally sound performance. There is a palpable sadness to the love between Julia and Charles.

The ensemble doubles up, playing numerous roles. David Roach is wonderful as Charles’ lovingly disengaged father, and Paul Reichstein plays Anthony Blanche with effete and garrulous panache.

The performances are well supported by the production design. The steep raked stage (like a vertiginous croquet lawn) is dressed very simply and effectively. Bob Weatherly’s inventive and intelligent lighting design creates different playing spaces. The backdrop is changing array of projected photographs and paintings, adding detail and mood. The actors are dressed impeccably; Herd, in particular, is immaculately beautiful.

This is strong and stylish amateur theatre.