My Cousin Rachel/Malvern Theatres

INFATUATION that ends in disaster is an age-old dramatic theme and there is no greater expert on the condition than Daphne Du Maurier.

The notion of a young, inexperienced man being completely consumed by the charms of an older woman may not sit well with the present day’s new Puritanism.

But it’s certainly a fertile area for storytelling and this adaptation by Joseph O’Connor is up there with the best of them.

Dark, brooding and oozing with menace, much of the sheer suspense in this cautionary tale of a man at first blinded by prejudice and then unquestioning love is created by designer Richard Kent’s haunting set and the oppressive Gothic atmosphere of David Plater’s subtle lighting.

Very rarely does the heart miss a beat with staged drama these days, but in this case, there are truly some very icy moments indeed.

Helen George is coldly convincing as the recently widowed Rachel, who has arrived at Barton House following the death of her husband in Italy. Here she encounters her host Philip Ashley, the cousin of her lately departed husband.

Jack Holden’s transformation from justifiably suspicious master of the house to lovesick dupe is spectacularly feasible – disturbing even – as he embarks on his slow descent into a pit of fiscal folly and unrequited obsession.

All stories that revolve around human weakness are better for having the wise counsel urging caution, and this is supplied in good measure by Simon Shepherd as young Philip’s godfather and adviser Nicholas Kendall.

Since the beginning of time, headstrong youth has invariably been indifferent to sound advice, and despite all his warnings, Kendall’s words predictably fall on deaf ears.

Set in Du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall, My Cousin Rachel has more twists and turns than a cliff top path and is thoroughly gripping from start to finish.

It runs until Saturday (December 7) and represents theatre at its finest.

John Phillpott