In June we saw Terence Rattigan's THE DEEP BLUE SEA at the National Theatre, the play that is acknowledged to be his masterpiece. A reason for this could possibly be because the story came from an incident in his own life. What Rattigan did however was to do something he could not do in real life... he could change the ending.
Mike Poulton does not have that luxury as his new acclaimed play KENNY MORGAN documents the incident Rattigan could only change in fiction.
Kenneth Morgan was a young actor who in 1940 won a Best Newcomer award for his role in the film of Terence Rattigan's stage success FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS but more importantly he met Rattigan during the filming and they became friends.
They met again after WW2 ended and started a relationship but this was the 1940s and Rattigan was terrified that his homosexuality would become common knowledge. Not only was homosexuality a criminal act but he also was worried his aged parents would find out. Rattigan's sexuality was known to his theatrical friends but that was all. Rattigan lived at the Albany near Piccadilly Circus but he also had the lease for a small flat on another floor which was used for visiting friends and that's where Morgan had to stay when he visited.
Morgan's career had lost it's momentum and he was depressed by his life as the famous writer's secret affair so, while Rattigan was preparing his Alexander The Great play ADVENTURE STORY, Morgan ended the relationship and went to live with another actor Alec Ross in Camden. Rattigan was upset but assumed Morgan would return. He did not. It soon became clear that Ross did not return Morgan's feelings and at the end of his tether, Morgan gassed himself.
Rattigan was in Liverpool with the play's director Peter Glenville when he heard the news and was profoundly shocked but by the evening he envisioned the start of a play where a body was found in front of a gas fire. It's interesting that Rattigan immediately started to re-write Morgan's fate in theatrical terms as a way of dealing with it.
Poulton's play uses the plot of THE DEEP BLUE SEA as his template but changes a main fact: Rattigan was not in London when Morgan died but Poulton has him making three appearances. Like THE DEEP BLUE SEA, the play covers the day and night after a suicide attempt with various characters coming and going, attempting to discover what drove the main character to that action, an action that in 1949 was in itself a criminal act; in Poulton's programme notes he estimates that in 1949, 300 people were charged with attempting to kill themselves.
It would appear that in real-life Morgan was successful at his first attempt but to fit the DEEP BLUE SEA narrative, Poulton has him being found in the morning slumped by the gas fire by a neighbour and the landlady and as in Rattigan's play, the neighbour calls a number in a found address book - in the play it's Hester's husband, here it's the playwright. Also as in the original, Morgan is helped by another neighbour, a European former doctor, struck off under mysterious circumstances.
Also as in the original, Morgan attempts to hide his suicide letter from Alec but it is found which triggers the start of Alec's emotional cruelty and the end of their affair. In the Rattigan's version, Hester finally sees a chance of redemption after a long talk with the doctor, in this version that chance is also offered through the doctor's appeal to life but one last twist of the knife by Alec destroys Kenny's optimism and he reaches for the gas tap again...
I am still in two minds whether it was a good thing to have seen THE DEEP BLUE SEA so recently: it was good to see how Poulton not only uses Rattigan's structure but also to see how he has referenced certain moments and individual lines in his own play but manipulated them to give it a new meaning. However I also feel that having THE DEEP BLUE SEA so fresh in one's mind, Poulton's play can only come across as an inferior copy; surely Morgan's despair felt more painful than a copy of a well-constructed play? It almost felt like a dramatist's exercise - can you write a new play based on the structure of an older one? Occasionally I wished Poulton could have broken away from THE DEEP BLUE SEA to make us feel Morgan's distress more intently.
There is also a problem with the character of Kenny himself; by writing him as a self-pitying lachrymose gay victim, speaking in the clipped manner of a 1940s juvenile lead, Poulton does make it hard to feel any sympathy for him which is the play's chief failing. The frequent traffic on the small Arcola stage also felt a bit too mechanical at times: it felt that Poulton was too interested in his characters to leave any of them offstage for long - did Rattigan really need to appear three times?
However I did enjoy the play very much, as well as Lucy Bailey's production which concentrated all the attention on that cramped living room like a pressure-cooker; the flat's design by Robert Innes Hopkins had just the right down-at-heel, drab feel.
Bailey also elicits nuanced performances from her cast: Paul Keating as Kenny had to struggle with the strait-jacketed character of Kenny but was very effective in his scenes in extremis especially when Alec destroyed his last chance of escape with his withering scorn, you could almost see the light go out in him.
As the men in Kenny's life, Simon Dutton was fine as Terence Rattigan, caring for Kenny in his own way but unable to get past his closeted outlook and Piero Niel-Mee was marvellously self-absorbed as Alec, retreating into his bi-sexuality when Kenny's love becomes too suffocating.
Circling these main characters were well-drawn roles that put gentle spins on Rattigan's own supporting characters: Matthew Bulgo was a delight as Kenny's upstairs neighbour, the mild-mannered Dafydd who works in an office job in the Admiralty, lives with his sister and who knows his life is quietly slipping by unnoticed, Marlene Sideaway was good as Mrs. Simpson, the spiky landlady who cares in her way but is suspicious of Kenny and his 'theatrical' ways.
Lowenna Melrose made an impression as Norma Hastings, a young actress friend of Alec who he sleeps with as if to prove to Kenny that he is not gay; Melrose nicely suggested that she was no fool where Alec was concerned. Rounding out the cast was George Irving as the mysterious neighbour Mr Ritter, a man nursing his past with a quick, sly wit and canny understanding. His accent strayed occasionally into Mittel-Europeanspeak but he was excellent in his arguments for life to be lived, even the bleak times.
Apart from the problem of Poulton's too-slavish adherence to the structure of THE DEEP BLUE SEA, this was well worth seeing and it would be nice if it had a life beyond it's current run. It is also a telling reminder of the crushing strictures that the law imposed during that period on the lives of, what Tennessee Williams called "the fugitive kind".