|Terence Rattigan takes no less a play than Hamlet as his cue for this work of 1944, originally intended as a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence. Commercial pressure led to it being hijacked by Broadway stars of the day, the Lunts - amusingly namechecked in the text - and it eventually emerged, in substantially altered form, as Love in Idleness.|
The original play, which has never before been staged as written, has been resurrected by Jermyn Street Theatre as part of the Rattigan centenary celebrations and in doing so the theatre has gained the jump on the Old Vic and the Theatre Royal Haymarket with their forthcoming productions of Cause Celebre and Flare Path.
In Less Than Kind Rattigan lifts the central premise from Shakespeare’s play and transplants it to wartime London. Society hostess Olivia Brown has neglected to tell her absent teenage son, Michael, that she is in a relationship with the government minister and noted industrialist Sir John Fletcher. In his years overseas, Michael has become an ardent socialist with an adolescent disinclination to compromise and when he returns home he is appalled to discover the truth of the situation – his mother has neglected to mention the matter in her letters – and immediately takes against Sir John.
He can’t abide the man, both the fact that he’s still married and the couple are living quite contentedly in sin, and that, as a wealthy industrialist, he’s emblematic of all Michael claims to despise. He has no qualms about forcing his mother into an impossible choice between her son and her lover.
At times the play seems overly pleased with itself as a literary exercise; Rattigan heavily underlines the Hamlet parallels, explicitly pointing out Michael’s antic disposition and making a joke out of his desire that Sir John accompany him to the theatre. The play is a far stronger piece of writing when it is being less overt, when it makes a genuine attempt to explore the emotional ramifications of the situation.
The performances help to give necessary weight to Adrian Brown's production. Sara Crowe, as Olivia, is the heart of the piece, a woman who, having found not only a man whom she loves, but a social role at which she excels, is obliged to give it all up for a dingy flat in Baron’s Court. She accepts her situation with dignity and quiet resignation, and gives a sense of someone who is keen to make the best of things no matter what hand life deals her – even when it involves making one’s own powdered egg omelettes and learning to type. There is no sense of resentment towards her son, her love for him is undimmed, and there’s only the – perhaps too faint – trace of anger at her predicament. Facing up to Sir John’s younger, more effortlessly glamorous wife, Crowe combines a kind of scatty nobility with a fragile, faded quality.
Michael Simkins is suitably charming as Sir John, a sheen that is maintained even when Rattigan allows Olivia to glimpse the lengths he’ll to which he’ll go to get what he wants. His love for her seems sincere and complete but there’s a slight edge of steel to him which is entirely appropriate to the character. There’s something more unnerving about David Osmond’s Michael with his righteousness and utter lack of concern for his mother’s happiness. There’s a chill to him, a subtle undercurrent of menace to his manipulation, qualities which Osmond’s performance draws out.
While the play contains plenty of Rattigan's characteristic warmth and wit, it probably benefits greatly from the intimacy of a space like Jermyn Street Theatre. Exposed on a larger stage, the artifice and the occasional heavy-handedness of tone would be more glaring. This tiny venue is altogether kinder, allowing the play to be appreciated for what it is, not an unearthed masterwork but a piece of considerable interest nonetheless.
Reviewed for musicOMH