DAPHNE du Maurier’s novel My Cousin Rachel, published 66 years ago, is a REAL murder mystery … not a whodunit but posing a “did they do it” question that is never answered.
It is the perfect story for a stage adaptation, and Diana Morgan’s version is the one chosen by Salisbury’s Studio Theatre for the spring production, on stage at the Ashley Road HQ until Saturday 8th April.
Linda Hayman, who directed another du Maurier classic, the memorable Jamaica Inn, for the company, returns to Cornwall for this riveting tale.
On a convincingly solid-looking set designed by Alistair Faulkner, this puzzling story unfolds, with its hints of Henry James mixed in with an earlier du Maurier book, Rebecca.
Philip Ashley, aged 24 and a few months shy of his legal majority, returns to the house where he has lived since he was orphaned at the age of two, after the mysterious and sudden death of his uncle Ambrose in Florence of a complaint alluded to as Roman Fever. It seems to run in the family, as another ancestor perished of the same condition.
Confirmed bachelor Ambrose had married his cousin Rachel a few months before his death, and had become suspicious of his new wife, calling Philip to Italy for help in two increasingly anguished letters. But when Philip arrived in Italy his uncle was dead and Cousin Rachel vanished.
That all happens before the curtain goes up, when Philip’s guardian and his daughter arrive to welcome the young man home.
But before long Cousin Rachel also turns up in Cornwall, on some unspecified legal business, and the mysteries deepen.
Infatuation, distrust, an Italian lawyer, London rumour-mongers and toxic seeds all play their part as the tension rises to a dramatic conclusion that depends on personal interpretation.
It takes subtle acting to ensure that My Cousin Rachel does not descend into a caricatured melodrama, and once again Studio Theatre demonstrates a deep well of talent and versatility to bring it off. The seven-strong cast stay in period and play it for real, so that the audience’s sympathies veer from side to side from start to finish.
With strong supporting performances by Paul Chalmers as guardian Kendall and Jemmy Hurd Kirby as his daughter Louise, David Rhodes as the faithful Seecombe and Colin Hayman as the “boy” of the house staff, and Terry D’Onofrio as the suspicious Rainaldi.
At the heart of the story are Philip and Rachel. Duncan Ericson is convincingly youthful and impetuous as the confused Philip, with Rachel Fletcher giving another astonishing performance as Rachel. I say astonishing as it is only a week on from her award-winning performance as Coral Browne in An Englishman Abroad in two one-act play festivals, again for Studio Theatre.
Cousin Rachel has to maintain a faultless Italian accent in this huge role, but must also seduce not only Philip but the audience with her explanations of the inexplicable, weaving webs of confusion and allusion.
So. Did Rachel dupe and murder Ambrose? What about her first husband, supposedly killed in an improbable riding accident? And just why did the healthy young Philip develop a fever that looks oh-so-like the Roman variety? Was she plotting with her Italian lover?
Or is she the innocent victim of a series of co-incidences and misinterpretations?
Go along to Studio Theatre and make up your own mind.
Photographs by Anthony von Roretz. Rachel Fletcher was not available for the photocall