Posts Tagged ‘Terrence Rattigan’

In 2011, Rattigan’s centenary year, Jermyn Street Theatre gave us the world premiere of Less Than Kind, the first incarnation of this play. It had never produced in this version because Rattigan de-politicised it, at the request of its star actors. This final version hasn’t been staged in London since 1945, despite the revival of interest in the playwright, though it turns out Trevor Nunn is actually giving us a hybrid of the two versions, putting some of the political edge back. 

It’s set towards the end of the Second World War. Widow Olivia Brown is co-habiting with millionaire industrialist Sir John Fletcher, separated from his much younger wife Diana, on secondment to the government to help with the war effort. Olivia’s son Michael returns from evacuation in Canada. He’s almost eighteen, he’s developed left-wing views and he takes against her mother’s new man and their relationship. Think Hamlet, to which Sir John occasionally refers. Michael tries everything, including involving Sir John’s wife, for whom he falls, to break them up. In the end Olivia is forced to choose, and she chooses her son. They return to humble Baron’s Court, from opulent Westminster, where Olivia transforms from extrovert socialite to drab and unhappy, devoting her life to looking after her son. He’s kept his job in Sir John’s ministry and still holds a torch for Diana. It all comes good, but I won’t spoil it by saying how.

Nunn starts each scene with war newsreels projected onto the curtain in front of Stephen Brimston Lewis’ excellent set, as he did in Flare Path, but even more effective here because the curtain is 90 degrees and translucent.. The transformation from the first to second scene in Act II is entertaining in itself, as the actors busy themselves changing the set from a Westminster drawing room to a Baron’s Court bedsit, diverting our attention from the newsreel. It’s a very well structured play with radical themes (for the time) of co-habitation and the politics are fascinating as  they prophesy post-war challenges, but the big surprise is how funny it is. Eve Best has long been a favourite dramatic actress, but the revelation of her performance as Olivia is how good she is at the comedy. I haven’t seen that much of Anthony Head on stage, but here he’s very impressive indeed as Sir John. I only know Edward Bluemel from the same period’s The Halcyon on TV, in which he was very good, as he is here as pouty Michael, prone to tantrums. Helen George is a vision in pink and mink, and a delight as goodtime girl Diana.

A treat for Rattigan fans (and others) which gets a well deserved transfer ‘up West’ so you have no excuse not to catch it. 

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I think I was born too late. J B Priestly and Terrence Rattigan are amongst my favourite 20th century playwrights and Ealing comedies amongst my favourite films. I therefore relish any opportunity to catch a J B Priestly play and booked for this rare revival six months ago! It may not be vintage Priestly, but it’s a charming, original (yes!) and thoroughly entertaining piece with a uniformly superb set of performances.

J B Priestly specialised in domesticity with gentle humour and a moral dimension. Here, we’re in suburban north London in the 1930’s where the Redfern’s and their adult daughter have Mrs Redfern’s sister and brother-in-law to stay following their return from a posting in the Far East. George Redfern is in the paper business, his daughter Elsie is about to get engaged, Bernard bangs on about life in the colonies and Lucy is a nag who criticises everything. So far, so suburban.

Imagine the shock when George confesses to his daughter, her new fiancée and the in-laws that he’s a crook. The engagement is off, as are the in-laws. Is this what George wanted? Is it true? Does his wife know? Then, as in his now most famous play, an inspector calls.

Though it’s a touch slow at the start, Oscar Toeman’s production soon becomes a delightful and charming light comedy. The confession is so at odds with what you’ve seen up to that point, it differentiates the play from its contemporaries or indeed much that has followed it. It has that warm feel of an Ealing comedy and, like The Ladykillers, a secret produces a delicious turn of events. Lily Arnold’s 30’s living room set is by necessity sparse, given the lack of space but, together with splendid period costumes, it perfectly captures the time and place.

Whatever you think of the play, you could not resist as fine a set of performances as you’d wish to see. Timothy Speyer is terrific as pompous brother-in-law Bernard as is Lynette Edwards as his righteous and indignant wife. Robert Goodale keeps George deadpan so you’re never sure whether he’s a crook, a joker or cleverly orchestrating events. Karen Ascoe as his wife Dorothy is in the background for much of the first half, but comes into her own after the interval and is masterly at the play’s conclusion.

This was only Priestly’s second play, twelve years before the other inspector called, and you can see the foundations for that later play being laid – all is not what it seems. I’ve never seen the film they made from it and it hasn’t been staged in London in the 30+ years I’ve lived here, so yet again huge congratulations to the Finborough Theatre for uncovering it. Another little gem.


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This is the sixth, and probably last, of my Rattigan centenary productions. His short one-acter, The Browning Version, set in a public school in the 40’s is usually paired with another one-acter called Harlequinade. Here it’s paired with a new play from David Hare set in a similar school 20 years later.

Rattigan’s play is a deeply moving tale of a school master with an unfaithful wife and unfair employer, but at its heart is an act of kindness by a pupil. A set of superb performances make Angus Jackson’s production shine like a gem. Nicholas Farrell as the master is initially pompous and irritating, but then almost breaks your heart. Anna Chancellor is icy cold as his unfaithful wife and Mark Umbers diffident but ultimately sympathetic as her lover. Liam Morton gives a very nuanced performance as the boy, a most auspicious professional debut. It’s a subtle and sensitive staging which benefits greatly from the intimacy of the Minerva space.

Hare’s ‘curtain raiser’ shows 60’s boys more questioning and challenging, but little else has changed in public schools with bullying a fact of daily school life. Older pupil Jeremy takes young John under his wing introducing him to his mother, Anna Chancellor now in a much more sympathetic role.  Again, an act of kindness is at the heart of the play, but this time we see things from the perspective of the pupil. The younger boys – Alex Lawther’s John, Jack Elliott’s Gunter (two more outstanding professional debuts) and Bradley Hall’s Jenkins are terrific and again the staging, this time by Jeremy Herrin, is subtle and sensitive.

Though they are very different plays, they sit very comfortably together and provide a deeply rewarding and very human evening, linked by these acts of kindness 20 years apart and 50-70 years ago, yet timeless.

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A gold star to Jermyn Street Theatre for kicking off Rattigan’s centenary year with the world premiere of the original version of a play which in any version is rarely staged. One might have thought he re-wrote it to placate the censors, given themes that would have shocked then if not now, but apparently he re-wrote it to accommodate the wishes of the star actors to whom it was offered.

Sir John Fletcher (excellently played by Michael Simkins), an industrialist given a position in the war cabinet, is estranged from his wife and has moved his lover in to the family home. Her teenage son, evacuated to Canada, returns home and jeopardises their relationship. There is a political dimension to the clash between the son and the minister (leftie meets reactionary) which provides another layer to the drama. There’s a nod to Hamlet, a number of issues discussed, and more witty lines than you might expect.

It’s not a great play, but it’s an interesting one and it’s given a decent production in this tiny space. Sara Crowe is a little too dippy as the lover at the outset but soon settles into the role, David Osmond seemed a bit sweet as the role of Michael hardened, but Caroline Head was spot on as the wife. Suzi Lombardelli’s design makes good use of the performing area.

This theatre really does need to put some sort of stage or platform to raise the performing area above its current floor level. There are only five rows of seats, but from the fifth row you see none of the performing area and when actors sit, not a lot of them either!

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With The White Guard, The Habit of Art and this all running in rep. in the Lyttleton at the same time, you’d be forgiven for moving in. I will be showering this ‘lost’ Terence Rattigan play with even more superlatives than I did the other two; it will go down in the NT’s history as one of its great achievements.

Soon after it begins, you think you’re at a Noel Coward play; it doesn’t seem like Rattigan at all. It isn’t until the second act when the depth and complexity comes through. What at first seems to be a satire on the decadent lives of the pre-war upper middle classes soon becomes a fascinating study of relationships and love. Quite why it is rarely produced is beyond me; I love Rattigan’s plays and this is without doubt the best of the seven I’ve seen.

Thea Sharrock’s production is masterly; so subtle and nuanced, every word, expression and movement has meaning. Hildegard Bechtler’s Drawing Room set is so realistic it’s like time travelling back 70 years. It has one of the best acting company’s put together at the National; many of them new to the NT. Adrian Scarborough moves from court jester to knowing friend and confidante (just about the only emotionally intelligent character in the play) seamlessly. Nancy Carroll is so good as the superficial socialite when she break’s down its devastating. Benedict Cumberbatch’s repression is so real you jump when he explodes. In the supporting company, Pandora Colin is a superbly comic party animal and Jenny Galloway a wonderfully pessimistic secretary.

This is such a satisfying theatrical experience – great play, terrific performances, faultless direction & design – you’d be completely bonkers to miss it.

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