Tension lacking as adaptation doesn't do du Maurier justice - Chichester

My Cousin Rachel, Chichester Festival Theatre, until February 1.

Helen George in My Cousin Rachel - Photo Manuel Harlan
Helen George in My Cousin Rachel - Photo Manuel Harlan

Daphne du Maurier really was one of our most remarkably readable novelists, the kind of writer who mixed mystery and romance in such perfect proportions that you couldn’t stop turning the pages until you’d reached the final full stop, whatever the time of night or day.

And that’s the magic that’s lacking in this stage adaptation of one of her finest works, My Cousin Rachel.

There’s a fantastic set and some excellent performances, but the intense emotional involvement you get with du Maurier at her finest simply isn’t there – that “What’s going to happen next” tension which comes with her very best writing.

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    du Maurier gives the company a gift of a tale, but the production just doesn’t quite carry it.

    Countess Rachel Sangalletti has upset the apple cart by travelling from Florence to the Ashley Estate in Cornwall, home of her recently deceased husband.

    There young Philip, cousin and heir to the Ashley home, is simmering in fury at the crime he’s convinced she’s committed. Once he meets her, however, it’s not long before he too is falling under her spell…

    Call The Midwife star Helen George is impressive in the way she gives us a Rachel hovering between survivor and sinner; she keeps us guessing whether we are looking at a woman catastrophically disadvantaged by the sudden loss of her husband or a scheming murderess poised to claim everything he ever owned.

    But the unidentifiable accent and the sheer strangeness of her stilted delivery undermine her performance. The piece is all about Rachel’s otherness, but it is difficult to believe the production has found anything like the best way to suggest and express it.

    Jack Holden fares much better as Philip, the cousin she entrances, overcoming his hostility.

    And there’s a lovely, rather curious duet he carries on with Simon Shepherd's Nick, the guardian of all the family’s best interests. As Philip’s antipathy wanes, so Nick’s suspicion of Rachel grows.

    And yet it’s not a production which truly grips. The Christmas carols at the end of the first half dissipate the momentum; the arrival of Guido, nicely acted to be sure, stalls the start of the second half.

    But maybe the biggest problem is the sheer scale of the task in hand. My Cousin Rachel is a powerful, bewitching page-turner. The stage adaptation is certainly entertaining, but it’s not remotely in the same league.