Review: Richmond Theatre’s My Cousin Rachel is a gothic romp with deeper meaning

By Tom Holmes
February 5 2020, 11.30

My Cousin Rachel is about many things: love, lust, pride, suspicion, jealousy, and quite possibly murder.

But more than any of those, My Cousin Rachel looks at gender, both in its text, and in its subtext.

Based on a 1951 Daphne Du Maurier novel of the same name, the adaptation by Joseph O’Connor runs for one week only at Richmond Theatre (finishing on Saturday February 8) with Call the Midwife’s Helen George playing the titular Rachel.

Despite Monday’s show being cancelled due to technical difficulties, Tuesday’s performance was immensely enjoyable.

The discussion of gender is baked into the premise, but its deft handling takes the execution up a notch.

The audience follows Rachel, an Italian widow to a Cornish man, who travels to Cornwall to stay with the cousin and ward of her late husband.

The young man is immediately suspicious of his older ‘cousin’ but equally enthralled by her beauty and beguiling charm.

BEGUILING: Call the Midwife’s Helen George as the mysterious Rachel

The play runs 19th Century attitudes towards gender fairly straight, but not only does it highlight these absurdities, it explicitly highlights the way the play’s characters are led by their false ideas.

But on another level, the play cleverly manipulates and highlights the misogyny in its own audience.

We’re supposed to laugh at the comments of some of the male characters, as they suggest, for example, that women’s periods are caused by the movements of the Moon.

But on the other hand, the play sets the audience up so that when those same characters suggest a few minutes later that Rachel cannot be trusted, they unsure of who here is the reliable voice.

This leads to a play that is satisfying on two levels.

If you’re keen for a dark, gothic, mystery romp with over the top acting and a twisting plot, you’ll be satisfied.

But if you look a bit deeper and examine the play’s attitudes towards sexism, toxic masculinity and how the way we see gender affects our behaviour, it works even better.

In terms of the production, the set design is simple but strong, and a rotating stage allows a relatively small space to feel larger in comparison.

The lighting, music choices and staging are all solid, and there’s no sign of the technical issues that prevented them getting going on Monday.

The acting is mostly well done, with Ms George inevitably standing out as the strongest cast member.

She is clearly having a lot of fun with the larger-than-life Rachel, but it’s also crucial for the play’s messages that she fully embodies the character, as subtle shifts in her personality could make a big impact.

The rest of the cast are solid, with Sean Murray’s portrayal of head servant John Seecombe also worthy of a nod.

The play is not perfect, certain scenes feel a bit too short or out of place and one or two character shifts feel a bit sudden, but they don’t detract from the overall impact of the piece.

My Cousin Rachel is excellent fun on face value, and an intelligent take on the source material with something to say underneath.

I would highly recommend you catch it while you can.

My Cousin Rachel runs every evening, with matinees, until Saturday February 8 at Richmond Theatre, 1 Little Green, Richmond TW9 1QH. Find tickets and information here.

Photos courtesy of Richmond Theatre.

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