Review – Love in Idleness, Menier Chocolate Factory, 9th April 2017

Love in IdlenessYou may think you know your Terence Rattigan, but have you ever come across Love in Idleness before? I bet you haven’t. This is, in fact, the first London production of the play since it originally graced the boards of the Lyric in 1944, two years after Flare Path and two years before The Winslow Boy. It’s easy to forget Rattigan’s status in the first half of the 20th century; but to give you some context, Love in Idleness was one of three plays he had on at the same time in Shaftesbury Avenue in the 1940s, and he is the only playwright to have notched more than 1000 performances for two separate plays – French Without Tears and While The Sun Shines. That’s some feat. No wonder a few years later John Osborne and Kenneth Tynan were so jealous.

LII1Love in Idleness is actually a rewrite of Rattigan’s unpublished play Less Than Kind, created at the behest of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne as the perfect vehicle for that darling American stage couple (although, to add to the confusion, it was called O Mistress Mine on Broadway). For this new Menier production, that seasoned expert of the stage Trevor Nunn has created a new piece by placing Less Than Kind and Love in Idleness side by side and synthesising the two. The result is a fine creation that blends the comedy of Lunt and Fontanne, heavily sprinkled with Rattigan wit, with a story of political argument highlighting progressive versus reactionary, youth versus experience. Ironically, the character of Michael Brown preceded that of Jimmy Porter to vie for the status of Angry Young Man by a good twelve years. No wonder John Osborne and Kenneth Tynan were so jealous. That’s twice I’ve had to say that.

Lii2Back in 1944, children who had been evacuated during the war were just starting to come home. Olivia Brown last saw her son Michael almost four years ago; and since then her life has changed more than somewhat. No longer living in a dingy bedsit in Baron’s Court, she’s become the lover and co-habitor of none other than Cabinet Minister for New Tanks, Sir John Fletcher, in his swish pad in Westminster. When Michael, now nearly 18 and something of a lefty, returns home, he is taken aback by the change in his mother’s status, appearance and behaviour. Something’s gotta give, but who, or what, will it be?

Lii3I came to this show with no prior knowledge of what it was about and no particular expectation, aside from the fact that a) it’s the Menier so it’s bound to be good and b) it’s already secured its West End transfer and that speaks for itself. Nevertheless, I still don’t think I was expecting too much from this production. Well that just shows how wrong I can be. This is an absolute corker (as Michael might say) of a production, immaculately performed throughout, at times blisteringly funny, at others superbly moving, and really, one must ask, why has this little nugget been hiding from us for all these years?

Lii8Trevor Nunn has coaxed his brilliant cast to get the maximum laughter, tension and pathos out of Rattigan’s characters whilst always remaining natural, unforced and very character-driven. That delightful opening scene, where Eve Best’s Olivia is draped over her couch arranging guests for dinner by telephone, tells you so much about her character with such simplicity, clarity and humour. In fact, it’s those physical moments in the play that really communicate what the characters are all about, from Olivia’s tender and ever-so-slightly sexual undoing of John’s jacket and giving his feet a gentle massage, to Michael’s continuously flinging himself face down on his bed in grand gestures of teenage harrumph.

Lii7Visually it’s charming, with perfect costumes by Stephen Brimson Lewis, from Olivia’s trouser-suit to Diana’s Ascot chic and even Miss Wentworth’s artily dotty creation; I appreciated the use of the attractive but commonplace Susie Cooper crockery – perfect for the era; and the Pathe newsreels, projected onto the translucent curtain, that divide the scenes, and add an informative background. Although, beware when the curtain forcefully swishes open past you; I was sat, legs outstretched, on the corner of Row A where it takes a 90 degree turn and the curtain very nearly took me with it.

Lii5About three minutes in to the play, I completely understood what it is Sir John would have seen in Olivia. Eve Best gives a most scintillating, enticing, and endearing performance as the Baron’s Court wife lured into the high life of Tory politics; adoring the surroundings and accoutrements of Dorchester dinners and tittle-tattle, relishing the demands of being a society hostess. She really would spark up an older man’s life and no mistake. Where it comes to uniting her new life with her old, she shows her struggle of understanding the demands of youth and upholding her familial commitments: as the poet once said, I thought that you’d want what I’d want, sorry my dear. Her changed appearance in the final scene provides a stark contrast to the glamour that preceded it, and shows how she is the only character to have made a genuine change in an attempt to help those around her. Ms Best is one of those actors that you just can’t take your eyes off. A stunning performance.

Vivienne RochesterAnthony Head’s Sir John is a distinguished, largely mellow, extraordinarily patient man, unless his routine is interrupted or he is pushed just that one inch too far. Unlike Olivia, he is totally used to the trappings of wealth, so his disdainful contemplation of catching a sequence of three buses in order to get to the café at Puffins Corner is absolutely hilarious. Radiating power, but through nobility rather than mere strength, he completely captures the essence of Sir John, which includes his unconventional handling of his wife. Mrs C thought he really knew how to carry off a Tuxedo. I’ll say no more.

Nicola SloaneEdward Bluemel, as young Michael, is new to me but is definitely a candidate for One To Watch. Perfectly expressing that awkward age between boy and man, his Michael is both feistily uncooperative and easily malleable at the same time. I loved his scene with Mr Head, as they prowl either side of the sofa like two caged tigers ready to rip each other to shreds but far too well brought up to do so. Idealistic and petulant, but also knowing when he’s beat, this is a gem of a role for a young actor and Mr Bluemel really handles it with aplomb.

Lii4I’ve only seen Helen George before on TV following her Strictly journey so didn’t know what to expect from her as the wronged (maybe) Lady Fletcher. Certainly her unexpected appearance just before the interval lifts the whole play and adds a new dynamism as the audience can’t quite work out whether she is more sinned against or sinning; simply incompatible to her husband is probably the closest you’ll get. It’s a lovely, assertive, slightly strident, beautifully composed performance; again, her interaction with Mr Bluemel is hilarious, ridiculing his use of archaic words, as is the cringingly excruciating scene where she meets Olivia, in a delightfully underplayed exercise of oneupwomanship. There’s excellent support from Vivienne Rochester as Sir John’s remarkably humourless assistant Miss Dell, and from Nicola Sloane as the respectable and loyal parlourmaid Polton, and the arty yet insubstantial Miss Wentworth.

I found myself absolutely glued to this play, and when the final scene fitted all the pieces together so nicely and with an amusingly happy ending, I found myself saying out loud “what a beautiful production!” as the lights dimmed but lingered on its protagonists. No surprise at all that this sold-out show warrants its West End transfer, intertwining as it does its rather beautiful depiction of 1940s elegance with its very relevant undercurrent of political anger. I thought it was magic! And if you missed it at the Menier you can catch it at the Apollo in May and June – but you’d better be quick, tickets are getting scarce.

Review – Flare Path, Oxford Playhouse, 3rd February 2016

Flare PathI’ve always had a soft spot for Terence Rattigan. I think it’s because I was so impressed when, shortly after my 17th birthday, I took myself off to London to see a production of Separate Tables starring the somewhat legendary John Mills and Jill Bennett. With a supporting cast of elderly theatricals like Ambrosine Philpotts and Raymond Huntley, it was a masterclass in acting understatement. And that is what Rattigan does best – conveying deep emotion and powerful personal dilemma in an environment where the stiff upper lip is all. I’m not sure I understood at the time the irony of casting Jill Bennett in that play – the ex-Mrs John Osborne, whose “kitchen sink” Look Back in Anger has always been seen as the antidote to Rattigan’s “well-made plays”.

Graham SeedThis was the first time I’ve seen Flare Path, although I read it in my early 20s, but I could remember very little of it. Rattigan wrote it whilst he was in the RAF and it’s based on his own wartime experiences. Flt-Lt Teddy Graham is a young officer at Milchester airbase in Lincolnshire, who has recently married an actress, Patricia. She has been performing in a play in London and therefore has not been able to support him in person on his air raids. Teddy is respected and trusted throughout the squadron, especially by his faithful Air Gunner Dusty Miller. After the run of Patricia’s play has finished, she comes up to Lincolnshire to be with Teddy. But that evening, in a local hotel, where the squadron members go after their raids to relax and regroup, Patricia and Teddy’s marriage is threatened by the sudden arrival of Peter Kyle, a Hollywood film actor with whom Patricia had a relationship before she married Teddy. Kyle wants Patricia to break it off with Teddy – and she admits she doesn’t really love her husband in the way she loved Kyle. However, just before Kyle engineers a showdown where Patricia will tell Teddy that it’s all over, Squadron Leader Swanson arrives to inform the men that their evening of relaxation with their wives is cancelled, because they’re all due out on a raid that night. What Patricia has to tell Teddy will have to wait until the morning. But what will happen overnight? And how will it change the course of events the next day? I’m not going to tell you that, you’ll have to see the play.

Lynden EdwardsIt’s a finely structured, deeply moving, rather solemn play but with occasional flashes of surprising humour. We were both struck by how the play examines the theme of sacrifice. Of course, the brave airmen who don’t come back from their missions make the ultimate sacrifice; but those left at home too must sacrifice their homes, their jobs, their lifestyles. Squadron Leader Swanson even sacrifices his sleep so that he can be there for the team when they get back from their raids. And when it comes to affairs of the heart, sometimes these too have to be sacrificed for the greater good and in the cause of simply doing the right thing. Teddy can be seen as a typical Rattigan male – on the face of it, noble; but concealing an aspect of himself of which he is not proud, or cannot come to terms – in this case, his fear of undergoing the air raid missions. Just like Separate Tables’ Major Pollock, hiding the allegations of sexually harassing women in a cinema, or indeed Rattigan himself concealing his homosexuality, Teddy’s a man with a murky secret – a flawed hero. In a few years’ time, elements of his character would develop into Freddie Page in The Deep Blue Sea, drunk and depressed from his wartime experiences.

Hedydd DylanDo you remember the late Brian Hanrahan’s reporting of the Falklands War back in 1982? As he watched the British Harrier jets taking off from HMS Hermes to launch the first air attack on Port Stanley, he wasn’t allowed to report the numbers of jets involved. He just, famously, said: “I counted them all out, and I counted them all back”. Such are the lives of the women waiting behind at the Falcon Hotel in Milchester. Countess Doris listens for the minute details of each aircraft flying overhead, knowing which ones are in trouble (“she’s flying on three engines. Been shot up, I expect”), and which are successfully taxi-ing after landing. They brave the blackout recriminations of Mrs Oakes as they open the curtains to watch the planes take off and land. It really gave me, as a modern audience member, who has never personally been involved with any military combat, an insight into what it must be like to be on the edges of war action – fully supportive of the war effort, but desperately worried about each and every outcome.

Claire AndreadisMrs Chrisparkle and I were chatting during the interval. “You know it’s not going to end well, don’t you” she suggested. I agreed. Every indication was that at least some of our brave boys were not going to see it to the final curtain. But, without giving too much of the game away, you can appreciate that the original 1942 audience might not have warmed to too tragic a finale, and I don’t suppose Rattigan wanted theatregoers sobbing in the aisles every night. If you’re after a happy ending, you might be lucky.

Daniel FraserSo what of this production by the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions? It seems very faithful to the original, dividing up Rattigan’s three acts into the current popular requirement for two, by bringing in the interval between Scenes One and Two of the second Act. I enjoyed the adherence to Rattigan’s original stage direction of having aircraft noises and communication sounds carrying on all through the interval, which keeps the audience in the zone whilst fighting over their ice-creams. “Wiggy Jones” has been replaced by “Betty” but that’s hardly material. Hayley Grindle’s set changes the position of the reception desk from Stage Right to Stage Left and brings the ever-burning fire more to the centre of the action, but otherwise is barely changed from the original. The sound effects – on which the play relies quite heavily – are authentic and crystal clear. For our performance, we had text captions either side of the stage which I have to say is an innovation that I really like. I think my hearing’s okay on the whole, but sometimes you can really benefit from having accents clarified or quickly spoken sequences visually presented to you.

Jamie HogarthA strong, mature play like this with some meaty roles cries out for some top quality performances; and this is where it gets a little disappointing. I think the production has a new cast for its 2016 tour and some of the scenes haven’t quite bedded down properly yet. It’s not badly performed by any means, but a couple of the more important roles were, for me, a little wooden and didn’t quite convey everything that I think Rattigan would have intended. To be honest, Lynden Edwards as Peter Kyle didn’t make the role particularly interesting. When he translated the Count’s letter for Doris, I sensed you should have been overwhelmed with emotion of some sort – but you weren’t really. I wouldn’t say it was like reading a shopping list, but you would have suspected an actor like Kyle would have put a little more expression into it. In some of the earlier scenes too, I just didn’t feel Polly HughesMr Edwards quite got it. Hedydd Dylan, as Patricia, was also rather slow to get going in her role, although by the time we reached the final scene I thought she brought out all the appropriate self-doubt and emotional turmoil.

William ReayFortunately, there were also some excellent performances. I was really impressed with Daniel Fraser as Teddy, a confident and credible performance as the archetypal hero playing the game whilst deep inside feeling distraught. His breakdown scene was tremendously moving and believable. I’ve not seen Mr Fraser before and I think he could be One To Watch. Claire Andreadis gave us a very bubbly Countess Doris, amusingly conveying her starstruck-ness in the presence of Peter Kyle, yet resolute and strong in the face of the apparent death of her husband. Jamie Hogarth was excellent as Dusty Miller, balancing friendliness and respect with his Skipper, whilst gently remonstrating with his wife for her uselessness on buses; the embodiment of salt of the earth. Audrey Palmer was delightfully frosty as the proprietor Mrs Oakes, and the ever-reliable Graham Seed was perfect as Swanson, the senior officer who was more of a friend than a superior, yet could command his men effortlessly when needs must.

Audrey PalmerDespite any reservations about the performances, Flight Path still comes across as an engrossing and emotional play, with timeless themes and a huge amount of dignity. Whilst somewhere in the world airmen are still flying bombing raids to attack the enemy, this play will never go away. Congratulations, Sir Terence, your play still rocks! The tour continues throughout the UK until May.

Review – Rattigan’s Nijinsky, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 20th August 2011

Chichester Festival TheatreFor this year’s Chichester trip, we thought we’d immerse ourselves in the joys of Terence Rattigan’s centenary year. So on a whirlwind day out, we took in a matinee and an evening performance of two different plays, one a Rattigan perennial, the other a more experimental experience, both directed by Philip Franks, and with a number of the same actors in both.

Rattigan's Nijinsky A few years before he died, Rattigan was working on a TV screenplay about Nijinsky (not the racehorse) and his relationship with Diaghilev. The story goes that Rattigan pulled it from the BBC production team because of an argument about its content with Nijinsky’s widow Romola. Thus it was never made, performed or even published. “Rattigan’s Nijinsky”, by Nicholas Wright, takes Rattigan’s screenplay – or some of what remains of it – and creates a new play with Rattigan himself centre stage, in a suite at Claridge’s, having meetings with Romola and his BBC director, but principally seeing his screenplay unfold through his mind’s eye; observing the interactions between Nijinksy, Diaghilev, Romola, and his other characters. So there is the challenge for the director – making the reality of the Claridge’s suite and the imagination of the screenplay co-exist on the stage.

In the words of Linda Barker, I thought it worked really well. The occasional change of lighting, and occasional soft sound effect, help separate the two but for the most part, it’s as real on stage as it is real in Rattigan’s mind. Upstage becomes a dance studio or a ship’s deck; centre stage is Claridge’s sofa and champagne, with characters from the hotel drifting in alongside characters from the story. But what’s the purpose behind it all? My original thoughts were that a lot of it was about the vividness of the creative experience – Rattigan imagining the play going on around him – enjoying some of it, finding other parts disturbing, rather like an ordinary member of the audience. Mrs Chrisparkle felt it was more of a drug trip. Rattigan’s declining health is causing a lot of pain and he frequently reaches for a dodgy elixir acquired in Bermuda. The more he drinks this painkiller, the more bizarre some of the apparitions become. On reflection, I think she’s got it right. This raises lots of interesting questions about what is real and what is imagined, and gives the whole play an additional dimension of curiosity.

Joseph DrakeHaving the same actor play Nijinsky and Donald the room-service boy, who wants to provide Rattigan with something distinctly off-menu, (or is that Rattigan’s wishful thinking?) is very effective as characteristics of the one get merged into the other. Joseph Drake puts in two very good performances in what must be a physically demanding two and a half hours, with several costume as well as character changes. Similarly, Jonathan Hyde plays both Diaghilev and Cedric the BBC man. These two characters couldn’t be further apart. Jonathan HydeDiaghilev is eerily elegant, with something of the vampire in his appearance, feasting on easily-led young men, and not used to being thwarted; Cedric is a scruffy laid-back guy, appreciative of Rattigan’s artistry but more concerned with the practicalities of dealing with the BBC hierarchy. Jonathan Hyde captured the essence of both men really well, and despite his affected appearance made Diaghilev a totally believable character.

It’s not all deep and meaningful. The scene with Cedric, for example, is also hilarious, as is the scene between Rattigan and his mother, and much of the play has a very nice undercurrent of humour that keeps it moving along. Personally I thought the second act got slightly bogged down at one stage; Mrs Chrisparkle thought I was being too critical. Chenin Blanc Maybe that was the effect of the interval glass of Chenin Blanc that I can highly recommend. Something we both completely agreed about was a really awful moment early on in the play when Nijinsky as a boy is being taken through his paces by the Ballet Master. The boy is challenged to leap high, over a stick held out by the Ballet Master; which the boy then raises, implying he can leap higher than that. Nice, I thought; shows his confidence and arrogance, and also implies he’s a damn good leaper. But then his leap is represented by them lifting the boy up so that he is held in a tableau pose that I can only say makes him look like Michael Flatley’s love child in some nightmare form of “Lord of the Dance”. It’s ridiculous, unsubtle and a bit embarrassing. I’m sure a talented director like Mr Franks could have found a better way of communicating that to the audience. No criticism of young Jude Loseby playing the nine-year-old Nijinsky who I thought otherwise was rather good.

Malcolm SinclairAt the heart of the play is Malcolm Sinclair’s performance as Rattigan. He’s quite a favourite actor of ours, having been in the wonderful Racing Demon earlier this year – we still don’t understand why that didn’t transfer. Here again he commands the stage with a natural authority, engaging easily with the audience so they are completely on his side; his facial expressions and vocal delivery allowing us to see into the real Rattigan, the one we could never see when he was alive. It’s a great performance – but I also think Nicholas Wright has written a pretty good role too. I confess I was moved to buy the play text afterwards.

Susan TracyIt’s an excellent ensemble, and everyone carried it off well; perhaps an additional mention to Susan Tracy as (inter alia) the elder Romola, full of tight-lipped ire in a superbly well-written scene, and also as Rattigan’s mother, desperately trying to pry into her son’s private life but still never seeing the truth.

It’s an experimental production, and definitely worth the experiment. It gives you much to think about, and is definitely one of those plays you discuss for some time after. I still think a lot of the play is about the creative experience – something I always enjoy in a piece. I also find it satisfying when the characters don’t end up at the same place as where they started – and Rattigan’s character development keeps you on edge, let alone the very active and absorbing story about Diaghilev and Nijinsky. The audience at last Saturday’s matinee was disappointingly small – perhaps half full – but very enthusiastic in its response. There are only three performances left before it closes on 3rd September; if you can get it to see it, I would highly recommend it.

Review – In Praise of Love, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, April 7th 2011

In Praise of LoveI’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.

Geraldine Alexander 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!

Jay Villiers 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 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 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.