Theatre: The Admirable Crichton Chichester Festival Theatre

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The Independent Culture
Chichester audiences are partial to plays that flirt with the idea of the lower orders getting the better of their betters, provided the plebs are then firmly whisked back to where they belong. J M Barrie's The Admirable Crichton (1902), might seem the paradigm par excellence of such a work: it shows how an earl and his butler swap places in the hierarchy when the household is ship-wrecked on a remote desert island and how, once they are rescued and returned to England, the status quo is restored. But the subversiveness of the play is craftier and more subtly-sustained than such a summary would indicate, and this is brought out well now in Michael Rudman's entertaining main stage revival.

The proceedings open at the swanky Mayfair home of Lord Loam (a bufferish, comically self-deluded Michael Denison) who thinks he has progressive views and so inflicts a monthly tea-party on his servants where they are supposedly treated as friends by the family. Nicely choreographed here to bring out the chilly condescension of the Earl's three snootily-indolent daughters and the awkwardness and internal divisions of the staff, these grisly rituals are a trial to everyone, but perhaps especially to Crichton, the loyal butler, who believes that a rigid hierarchy is ordained by nature.

With his showbiz tan and shady, ageing-villain good looks, Ian McShane (pictured above) is odd casting as a punctilious prop of the Establishment - you feel you'd soon be counting the silver if you were having to count on him. But his portrayal of Crichton deepens with the move to Johan Engel's amusing douanier-Rousseau-esque desert island where a new social structure emerges, based on merit rather than class. The butler, incomparably more resourceful than the useless aristos, becomes the "Gov", honoured by all the dependent party and, eventually, the fiance of Victoria Scarborough's excellent Lady Mary, who is transformed on the island, from a terminally disdainful nob to an adventurous tomboy who could have held her end up with Peter Pan in Neverland.

The Admirable Crichton shares with Barrie's children's classic not just a shape (the move to and from the central episode on a fantasy island) but a wistful sense of the temporaryness of the inset idyll. Skilfully blending the satirical and the fantastical, Rudman's production manages to capture the elusive atmosphere of the play's second half, that undertow of melancholy for what has been lost, in human terms, by the return to London that sustains dissent against the established order even as it is reasserted.

McShane is at his best in these later episodes. A faintly unsettling chieftain on the island, he makes Crichton's decisions to signal for the ship that will bring his power on this utopia to an end seem as profound and momentous an act of self-abnegation as Prospero's breaking of his magic staff, while the reversion to his old subservient self is creepy in its instantaneous completeness. There's a distinct edge, though, to the droll poker-faced enjoyment this butler takes back in London in supporting, before sceptical socialites, the utterly distorted aristocratic version of the two-year adventure in which he is reduced to a mere footnote. This is carried through to the close for, of the many variant endings of this play, Rudman has chosen one where Crichton's future conservatism seems far from guaranteed. And, in a spooky, musical way here, the island gets the last abrupt word.

Booking: 01243 781312