When a film adaptation of a novel becomes as renowned as Merchant Ivory’s A Room With A View released in 1985 and starring many of the finest British actors of a generation (Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Helena Bonham-Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis, Simon Callow and the late, great Denholm Elliot), it’s pretty hard to read the book afterwards without recalling those who brought the characters to life, not to mention the sweeping shots of Florence and the soundtrack featuring Kiri Te Kanawa’s rendition of the Puccini aria ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’.
It must therefore have been something of a challenge for director Adrian Noble when approaching this new Theatre Royal Bath production whether to do a completely original version or one embracing elements of both the book and the iconic film – and perhaps wisely he chose (and somehow managed) to pull it off. It’s fair to say that those going along with either E.M. Forster’s novel of the same name tucked under their arm or the dvd of the film lined up at home, can hardly fail to be impressed by the deftness of this charming tribute.
The success of this staging is in large part down to a skilful adaptation by Simon Reade who ensures scenes are fast moving and witty, while Felicity Kendal as the seemingly starchy spinster Charlotte Bartlett is chief at leading the laughs as we open at the cockneyfied Pensione Bertolini in Florence where she and her young cousin Lucy Honeychurch (Lauren Coe) are residing as part of a wider Italian tour; professing to complain about their rooms not having a view entirely on account of her young companion at dinner and refusing the kind-hearted but uncouth Mr Emerson’s offer that they take his and his son’s rooms which do have a view on account of not wanting to be under any kind of obligation to them.
It is fellow guest, The Reverend Beebe (Simon Jones), who assures Miss Bartlett that Mr Emerson was only trying to be kind and subsequently liaises with the Emersons about the exchange of rooms; and while some of the cast impersonate the performances in the film version – in particular Jeff Rawle who nonetheless does a magnificent job of replicating both the voice and mannerisms of Denholm Elliot as Mr Emerson, and in the second half Charlie Anson who looks and sounds as if he has closely followed Daniel Day-Lewis’s highly amusing portrayal of Cecil Vyse – it is clear from the outset that Jones, Joanne Pearce as the eccentric novelist Eleanor Lavish and Kendal have intentionally steered away from this. It’s refreshing to see Kendal deliver very much her own version of Miss Bartlett; an altogether softer, more sympathetic chaperone to Lucy who, away from her quiet Edwardian drawing room existence, is on the threshold of discovering who she really is, aided by Mr Emerson’s mysterious and passionate son George (Tom Morley).
George is fortunately standing by to rescue Lucy from fainting when she witnesses an Italian man being stabbed, yet this scene could have been more dramatic and brutal if Lucy, instead of being set as the sole witness, had been a member of a noisy Italian crowd looking on. Nonetheless, the later conversation between Lucy and George fully conveyed the transfiguring effect of this shared experience and both Coe and Morley possess a convincing chemistry. The party from the Pensione later embark upon a tour of the countryside led by Rev’d Cuthbert Eager (David Killick), and the carriage scene, whereby the cast utilise chairs and mime the motion is highly amusing, not least when the Rev’d Eager scolds the Italian driver for kissing his lover.
The group later picnic on the hillside and, while designer Paul Will puts us in the mood with his Tuscan backdrop, it can’t be underestimated how much power we lose as a result of the poor quality music during Lucy and George’s climatic love scene. Lucy, having been told to go in search of the men by Charlotte and Eleanor who want to confide secrets, stumbles across George who seizes his opportunity and kisses her passionately in a corn field, but should this production arrive in the West End, the background music will really need to be addressed. Kendal is meanwhile hilarious as the shocked Charlotte who witnesses George and Lucy’s romantic interlude, and especially when blaming herself for not being a very good chaperone. The cousins therefore make a pact never to inform Lucy’s mother of the slip-up, or indeed speak of it ever again. But can Charlotte be trusted not to tell Eleanor Lavish?
The second half is set back in Surrey the following summer and opens with Lucy’s engagement to the priggish Cecil Vyse, who is comically unsuitable for our heroine. Thankfully, however, Cecil recently chanced to meet Mr Emerson and his son George in the National Gallery and suggested they rent one of the new semis in the village – cue a very British love-triangle. Vyse is simply too snobbish for the free-spirited middle-class Honeychurches (look out for the William Morris drapes), with Lucy’s younger brother Freddy (Jack Loxton) dreading the idea of having him as a brother-in-law and even the social-climbing Mrs Honeychurch (Abigail McKern) admitting to finding Cecil’s intellectualism irritating.
The Emersons on the other hand are even more free-spirited than the Honeychurches and George happily takes up Freddy’s suggestion of going for a bathe in the nearby lake, accompanied by Mr Beebe. Surely nothing engenders more laughter from audiences than full nudity, doubly funny when Lucy, Mrs Honeychurch and Mr Vyse (whom Lucy never thinks of other than in a room) happen to take a walk through the wood and get more nature than they bargained for. The lake scene sums up what a triumphant production this is and one that is strong enough to stand apart from the film adaptation, whilst unashamedly taking inspiration from it. Aside from being a feel-good romantic comedy, it also conscientiously delivers Forster’s message of class snobbery, feminism and the importance of carpe diem.
A Room With a View at Theatre Royal Bath until 5th November 2016 before touring the UK. Production images by Nobby Clark. For more information and to book tickets please visit the website.