I’m really pleased to see Terence Rattigan receiving deserved attention in his centenary year. If there’d not been any Rattigan, there wouldn’t have been any Osborne to rebel against him. I can imagine a late 1950s dramatists’ tug of war competition – Osborne, Wesker, Pinter, Beckett, Delaney pulling hard on one side with Coward and Rattigan on the other, looking for a bit of support from The Mousetrap and Salad Days. The outcome of the struggle was inevitable.
But class will out, and it’s great to see his current reinstatement on our stages. When I was 16, I took myself down to London one evening to see a revival of “Separate Tables”. It had a fantastic cast, lead by John Mills and Jill Bennett; masterclasses in stiff-upper-lipness and emotional devastation respectively. The following year I saw the original production of “Cause Celebre”, with Glynis Johns and Kenneth Griffith. I remember the play being heavily criticised for “not being as good as the plays he wrote in the 1940s.” I felt that was unfair – it was a good story, well acted, lots of suspense; and I can look back now and feel that I was privileged to see an original Rattigan production.
Enough reminiscing. As part of their “Made in Northampton” season the Royal and Derngate now have a new production of “In Praise of Love”, one of Rattigan’s less well known plays originally produced in 1973. To outline the story is to spoil it for you, so I won’t. Suffice to say it involves a long marriage, sickness, secrecy and hidden motives.
The use of a black curtain slowly rising at the beginning of both acts and slowly descending at the end of the acts makes a surprising visual impact. You very slowly begin to take focus on the set (an amazing recreation of a book-lined flat by Naomi Dawson) and the couple living in it; slowly you appreciate the situation in which they find themselves; and at the end, slowly it dawns on you what the future will hold.
At the centre of this play is Lydia, an Estonian refugee whose homeland no longer exists (remember this is 1973). Rootless, she clings on to her love for husband no matter what life (and he) subjects her to. He drives her to anger, to love, to impatience, to tolerance, and much more besides. She loves her son non-judgementally, but like any mother is willing to manipulate him well outside his comfort zone. And she loves their family friend – to what extent, I think that’s for you to decide. Geraldine Alexander plays Lydia with gutsy fragility. In the nicest possible way, she looks like someone who has had to put up with a lot in life, and her slow descent into drunkenness is spot on. At times girlishly sprightly, at times careworn and depressed, she accurately depicts all the aspects of the character. Mrs Chrisparkle and I are friends with a couple of Finnish ladies of a certain age, and Finnish and Estonian traits being pretty similar, I can tell you this is a very realistic interpretation of the highs and lows of a Baltic lady!
Her husband Sebastian is a self-confessed “shit”, and his selfish cantankerousness is very credibly written and played; useless domestically, demanding socially, begrudging with praise and kindness. We all know the kind of bloke who takes his wife for granted and acts boorishly; some of us even may be him. Jay Villiers shows beyond all doubt that it is not a pretty sight. The character development in the second act is equally well done. It’s a very fine performance.
Sean Power as the old family friend turns his hand deftly to supporting all three of the other characters in their hours of need, without ever giving you the sense that he is talking out of place or being disloyal to the others. His character is in a tricky situation and you completely believe in the “only way out” that he can live with.
Gethin Anthony as the son Joey is a calming influence on his feisty mother but a source of irritation to his father, with his different political views (quite a nice twist on the norm of the day where Rattigan’s traditional characters would have been old fashioned Tories disgusted by the leftist attitudes of the “younger generation” – here an old Marxist is disappointed by his son being liberal). Gethin Anthony’s younger behaviour revealingly contrasts him from the older characters. Here you see the polite young man who greets the family friend, the optimistic person at the start of a hopefully promising career, and also someone who looks forward to a better political future. He’s also not above a childish stomp upstairs in a huff when things go wrong – mind you, nor’s his father. It’s a very likeable performance, the easiest character in the play to identify with; combining the occasional insolence of youth with the anxiety of being out of one’s depth with the future.
However, despite all this, we do have a slight problem, Houston. The set is great; the acting is great. If you take any sequence of conversation within the play, it’s elegantly written and may well make you laugh, shock you, surprise you, sadden you. There is a clever coup de theatre in the story that turns the world on its head. But somehow, when you put it all together, it just comes across as being a bit underwhelming. Despite tackling important subjects and plumbing the depths of deep emotion, it all feels a bit small. A lot of the first act comes across as very “scene-setting” – Mrs Chrisparkle actually used the word “clunky”. The second act is written much more fluidly and the story progresses without interruption to its climax. But, as the curtain fell, I was expecting something more to happen. Does it end there? I can see why Rattigan chose that moment to close the scene, and the visual expressions of the two characters on stage at the end were very telling of their plight. But I still wanted one more thing to happen. One more twist; one more revelation. Rattigan, you let me down!
On our way home Mrs Chrisparkle said she couldn’t imagine a better production of this play. And if that is half-praise, I think that sums up my thoughts too. If you’re interested in Rattigan, you’ll want to see it out of a sense of completeness. You’ll also get to see some really good acting and a play that’s perfectly suited to its surroundings in the Royal.