Melissa Blease reviews My Cousin Rachel, starring Helen George, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 23 November

Lady Macbeth, Cruella de Vil, Hedda Gabler, Nurse Ratched, Mrs Danvers (the latter being particularly relevant to this review): Great British theatre’s iconic wicked women are the charismatic gifts that keep on giving from first entrance to finale. Limelight-stealing styling tends to come as standard in the loathsome leading lady package, they’re never, ever ditzy and they usually get to deliver all the best lines too – no wonder we venerate our vixens.  

But to state whether or not Rachel Coryn Ashley – the enigmatic cousin of young Philip Ashley, heir to his deceased uncle Ambrose’s (and Rachel’s late husband’s) vast estate – deserves a listing on the GBTIWW charts would be a spoiler alert too far. We are, after all, on tense romantic thriller territory here, and to slightly misquote a line from  Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel on which the play is based, what trail of thought, confused and indirect, would drive a theatre critic’s mind to cloud the audience’s judgement?

This box fresh adaptation of Du Maurier’s classic psycho-drama – a Theatre Royal Bath production – brings all the very best aspects of traditional theatre together in one artfully elegant package. Directed by Anthony Banks (whose previous directorial credits include The Girl on the Train, Gaslight and Strangers on a Train, thus boding well for fans of the art of titillating tension), the drama is delivered against a rotating set that gently spins us along a route that involves pitstops at the Ashley’s family gothic mansion, its gardens and the village that surrounds it. Meanwhile, the rugged Cornish coastline backdrop is bought to moody, evocative life by rolling weather effects including sea mists, softly-falling snow and dramatic storms; chilly? You got it!

As Philip Ashley, Jack Holden moves from despairing, grief-stricken young man to strident, foolhardy head of the household with aplomb, supported by his long-term friend and steadfast mentor Nicholas Kendall: a robust performance by Simon Shepherd, who skilfully juggles a swathe of emotions from loyalty and compassion to doubt and suspicion both personally and on Philip’s behalf. And what – or rather who – is causing all the disruption? That’ll be the enigmatic, twice-widowed Countess Sangalletti, aka Philip’s cousin Rachel, arriving fresh from Florence and poised to wreak emotional havoc on all whose paths she crosses – most notably, Philip’s – as the drama unfolds. So…

Did Rachel murder Ambrose? Is Guido Rainaldi (a fabulously camp performance from Christopher Hollis) really her lawyer, or part of the wicked web some believe her to be weaving? Are she and Philip really ‘A Thing’ – or is his cash the king? Are the bewitching brews she dispenses from her teapot really curative concoctions… or poison? As Rachel, Helen George waltzes from malevolently manipulative miscreant to subtly spunky survivor as smoothly as she tosses her hair, rustles the skirts of her ballgown or flutters her fingertips across her pearls, keeping everybody guessing as to her true motivations until the devastatingly dramatic finale.

As Nicholas says to Philip somewhere in the midst of the whole, gripping tale, “some women – good women, very possibly – through no fault of their own impel disaster.” This production of My Cousin Rachel, however, impels a triumph… and throws Great British theatre’s iconic wicked women charts into perplexing, paradoxical disarray. 

Main image: Helen George as Rachel Ashley in My Cousin Rachel. Credit: Manuel Harlan