Friday, April 07, 2017

LOVE IN IDLENESS at the Menier - Rattigan Reimagined

Just when it looked like the revivals of plays by Terence Rattigan were over, up pops another one at the Menier Chocolate Factory, a highly unlikely home for this writer.

It turns out that LOVE IN IDLENESS is a bit of a cut-and-shunt job.  In 1944 Terence Rattigan wanted to write a play which reflected the conflicts of the time - when confidence in winning the war was tempered by worries of what the country would do next - as well as write a typical Shaftesbury Avenue comedy star vehicle.  Gertrude Lawrence turned it down unread but the acting (and married) partnership of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne picked it up.

The title was LESS THAN KIND which hints at the play's riffing on HAMLET but Lunt felt it's plot - young man burning with Socialist idealism returns from wartime evacuation to Canada to discover that his widowed mother has moved in with an industrialist currently serving in Churchill's wartime cabinet - was not humorous enough for him so Rattigan rewrote it, dropping most of the confrontations over politics.  Later on he recanted saying that he wished he had kept the play as it was and not bowed to star power.

Fast forward to 2016: Trevor Nunn was looking for another Rattigan project after his successful revival of FLARE PATH in 2011 and discovered the two similar projects and after urging from the Rattigan estate to meld the two scripts - reinstating some of the political debate but also keeping it light and amusing - we now have LOVE IN IDLENESS.  Incidentally the unperformed LESS THAN KIND was given a belated debut in 2011 too at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre (home of the hags, don't get me started).

I must admit to some trepidation at the thought of Trevor Nunn imposing his love of playing length on what sounded like a frothy comedy (and it does come down after nearly three hours) but remarkably his production delighted in it's brio and in the winning performances.  True, Rattigan weights the plot in favour of the industrialist Sir John Fletcher but when he is played so delightfully by Anthony Head it's a point one is willing to concede.

I was also hugely surprised by Eve Best as the high society-loving Olivia Brown.  Best is *ahem* best at roles which usually find her mournful and constantly wiping away tears or blowing her nose on a hankie secreted up the arm of her dowdy dress but here she blossoms as a gushingly over-indulgent mother but whose sense of fun is nicely balanced with a sense of fair play.  There were several times during the play that I thought what a nice part this would have been for Emma Thompson to have played had she not seemingly turned her back on theatre (SWEENEY TODD withstanding).

As I said Anthony Head is utterly charming as Sir John, possibly the best I have seen him on stage.  He captures the combination of a believable powerful man of influence while also being totally thrown by the emotional devastation that Olivia's truculent son brings with his arrival back from Canada.  As Michael, Olivia's son determined to break up his mother from a man who represents everything he despises, Edward Bluemel starts a bit wobbly but gained in strength during the evening, eventually playing Michael's selfish side well.

Another performance which really surprised me was Helen George as the society girl Diana.  Nicely introduced as what you expect to be a girl that Michael has picked up, the reveal that she is in fact Sir John's estranged wife is nicely done and she plays Diana's ruthless determination very well.  She more than holds her own against her more illustrious co-stars. Sadly the other supporting cast members are all a bit weak but the four leads carry them well.

Stephen Brimson Lewis has designed a pleasing Mayfair apartment for the primary action to take place which converts nicely into a low-rent Baron's Court flat for the final scene and it's a nice touch to have the time and place so well established with old Pathe News clips projected onto the wraparound scrim curtain.

Yes it's lightweight and throwaway, and not really Rattigan's best work, but it entertains and proves that sometimes experience does count for everything.  I was somewhat surprised to hear that it will transfer to the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue in May but wish it well as it is a play written to be seen on the Avenue.  I hope it finds it's audience.

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