“There’s not a single situation that can’t be resolved with small talk”
Getting in with the celebration of the centenary of Terence Rattigan’s birth (as they did with Sondheim last year), the Jermyn Street Theatre have managed the impressive feat of unearthing a hitherto unperformed play, Less Than Kind, which is therefore receiving its world premiere here. Written in 1944, it suffered the rather ignomious fate of being rewritten and reshaped into a fundamentally different play to please the all-powerful producer/actors who were financing the show. It changed so much as to be given a different name, Love In Idleness, but it seriously damaged Rattigan’s reputation as it revealed the extent to which he kowtowed to the commercial interests of the day at the severe expense of his original artistic vision. But fortunately a copy of the original play survived and that it what is being mounted here, directed by Adrian Brown.
The play is set in London in 1944 and centres around the return of Michael Brown, an idealistic teenager who was evacuated to Canada and is shocked to find on his return, that his mother is now living a life of luxury since she is the mistress of a wealthy businessman who has been co-opted into the War Cabinet to assist with the manufacture of tanks. Whilst abroad, Michael discovered socialism so his mother’s perceived betrayal is both a personal and political insult to him and so he sets about forcing his mother to choose between her son and her lover. Rattigan has stuffed the show with heaps of articulate, witty dialogue and it is a genuine hoot at times, I’m not too sure that the Hamlet references were hugely successfully integrated but the play stands up as a fairly strong piece of comic drama.
Sara Crowe is really rather marvellous as Olivia, whose dilemma and resigned acceptance of her fate as a woman drives the show and has some amazingly witty lines as she is frightfully polite and proper yet always seems to get her real meaning across. In the best scene in the play, she accidentally meets her lover’s estranged wife for the first time in her drawing room and without batting an eyelid, launches into a terrific display of chitchat and inanities to avoid any public social awkwardness: it is a masterfully crafted scene, so well-written and excellently played by all concerned. And she gets to use a typewriter in one scene, one which is purported to be the very machine that the original play was typed on, which seems robust enough to be actually used as a prop rather than a relic to be looked at. But together with Michael Simkins, she creates a really rather touching portrayal of this relationship that one cannot help but root for. Simkins is also excellent in the role of the gruff industrialist who is beautifully, unashamedly candid about his emotions for Olivia and powerfully passionate about his Tory politics and free-market ideals.
David Osmond has the unenviable task of playing a character that one would happily punch from almost the moment he arrives on stage, his brattish son is extremely self-assured in his newly-gained political beliefs, shockingly patronising to his ‘poor old mum’ and precocious to the extreme, almost to the point where it is hard to believe that his mother would pick him, but Crowe’s maternal instinct just about shines through: he’s handed a doozy of a volte-face in the final act though. But Caroline Head was great fun as the glamorous but vacuous Lady Fletcher, a flirty flapper who can’t help but turn heads and Katie Evans and Vivienne Moore both do well with their small supporting roles.
Suzi Lombardelli’s design worked extremely well for the Westminster house with its elegant cream lines but given the limitations of the theatre, the change to the alternative venue of the final act was necessarily a little perfunctory. It was more effectively communicated in the costumes though, with a range of lovely 40s frocks and some very nifty headwear and generally speaking, the production values felt pleasingly high. ‘Lost’ plays are sometimes a little difficult to tolerate as there is often a good reason that they have been collecting dust on a shelf somewhere, but this is not the case here and both as a strong play in its own right and as an appetiser for the myriad Rattigan productions that are headed to stages up and down the country this year, Less Than Kind comes highly recommended.