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Daphne du Maurier

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Review of The Years Between - Dominic Cavendish Feb 2011

Royal & Derngate, Northampton

This neglected du Maurier play is finally getting the kind of push needed to place it permanently on the map of essential 20th-century theatre. Rating: * * * *

Although Daphne du Maurier's first bona fide play (after her adaptation of Rebecca) was revived as recently as 2007 at the Orange Tree in Richmond, The Years Between has enjoyed a baffling degree of undeserved neglect since its successful 1945 London run.

Watching this immaculate production by Kate Saxon, to whom Royal & Derngate artistic director Laurie Sansom entrusted the work, having chanced on a copy of it in a second-hand bookseller's box beneath Waterloo Bridge, you can't help thinking that it's finally getting the kind of push needed to place it permanently and prominently on the map of essential 20th-century theatre.

This is a play that brings home with startling finesse the irreversible and diverse impact the Second World War had on the lives of men and women, as exemplified and exacerbated in a middle-class marriage.

Inspired by du Maurier's own fears and misgivings about the changes wrought on her complex personality, and that of her soldier husband, during the war years of enforced separation, it sketches a broad portrait of a society facing post-victory upheaval while focusing intently on the stresses and strains afflicting one recognisable, if more affluent than most, couple.

The action begins in 1942, when Diane Wentworth (played with a consummate sense of withheld anxiety by Marianne Oldham) is coming to terms with the fact that her colonel husband - Michael - is missing, presumed dead, and that it's time to move on. Supported by the pair's quietly dependable, farmer friend Richard (Alisdair Simpson), with whom a full-blown romance is budding, she resolves to stand for Parliament in her husband's seat and be of some practical, political good.

Cut to April 1945 and the expected twist arrives in the shape of Gerald Kyd's haunted, querulous Michael, exhausted by his derring-do exploits and wanting everything back in its comfortable, gender-defined place.

Du Maurier eschews any hint of melodramatic confrontation and instead orchestrates a steady stream of tense verbal skirmishes, sudden tactical retreats and heartbreaking evasions, with their young son Robin caught in the subtle crossfire. Some of the subjects aired in the Wentworth's lavish library-cum-domestic battlefield - viz the introduction of the nanny state, which Diane champions and Michael scoffs at - feel incredibly apposite today. You're almost tempted to say "plus ša change", except, as this riveting revival makes plain, change - of a fundamental and historically significant nature - came regardless of whether it was wanted or not.

Tickets: 01604 624811

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