Suspicion, intrigue, death and romance, set against the dramatic scenery of the Cornish countryside – could there be a better setting for the telling of a classic piece of gothic theatre? This new production of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel has so much to appeal to lovers of traditional British theatre, perhaps it’s no surprise that on a cold, late Autumn evening in Bath, the house at the Theatre Royal was full.
The plot centres around the arrival from Florence of the Countess Rachel Sangalletti to the Ashley Estate in Cornwall, perviously owned by her late husband and soon to be inherited by Philip, the young and honourable heir whose hatred for his cousin Rachel has burned with a belief that she was responsible for his guardian’s demise.
What follows is psychological thriller based around the question of Rachel’s guilt or innocence, and truth behind her visit to her late husband’s estate.
While the actors were largely familiar faces who play their parts well, the most noteworthy presence is the superb scenery. Built around a rotating set, it cleverly portrays the family hall with the rugged Cornish coastline behind, while also revolving to introduce the house’s garden, the village that surrounds if and life that is at its beating heart. Complemented by the drifting Cornish mist, rain, lightning and snow, the set is both atmospheric and cosy, reflecting the moods of the characters and the passing seasons to wonderful effect.
Throughout, the cast inhabit their characters well, with Jack Holden as the young heir to the estate clearly torn between his duties and despair for the lose of his guardian, and his confused feelings for his cousin Rachel. Holden brings a naïve innocence to the role and you can almost feel the audience on one hand wanting to comfort him in his grief and on the other holding a hope that he will grow up and becomes more worldly wise as quickly as possible.
In her role of the Rachel, Helen George beguiles and challenges both young Philip and indeed the audience – is she the villain the young heir believes or a genuinely caring widow looking for the best for her late husband’s family and friends? George brings an impressive strength to the character as a woman ahead of her time who yearns to be more than another servant in a male-dominated society, using subtle changes in her character to keep the audience guessing as to her true purpose.
Credit must also go to Simon Shepherd in the role of Nicholas Kendall, as true a family friend to young Nicholas as he could hope for, yet wrestling honourably between his loyalty for the young heir and his own suspicions towards the mysterious visitor to the family home.
Does the production work? As a piece of classic British theatre, it offers so much that will please so many audiences. The atmospheric setting, a mysterious character, hidden secrets, romance – no wonder the theatre was full. And perhaps it’s this classic familiarity that is also this production’s weakness – there’s little new or surprising with the plot, which delivers a feeling of comfortable predictably rather than shock and surprise.
Overall this is enjoyable if undemanding production, well played and beautifully designed.
My Cousin Rachel appears at the Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 23 November. Tickets are on sale at the Theatre Royal Bath Box Office on 01225 448844 and online at www.theatreroyal.org.uk