Review: Variation on a Theme, Finborough Theatre

“I suppose the truth is, if you need somebody enough it doesn’t seem to matter much what they do to you, or what they turn out to be”

It is Variation on a Theme that a young Shelagh Delaney saw and was inspired to write her iconoclastic A Taste of Honey, playing her own part in shaking up a British theatre scene that had Terence Rattigan as a fusty figurehead and whilst her play went on to become a classic, his slipped into obscurity and hasn’t been seen on stage for fifty years. Rattigan has of course undergone a serious re-appreciation since his recent centenary year with many of his works being staged, including a rehearsed reading of this play, which has blossomed into a full production at West London’s Finborough Theatre. The run has already sold out so we snuck into a preview.

Variation on a Theme is loosely based on La Dame aux Camélias, set in the 1950s on a sun and booze-soaked French Riviera where the taut charms of a handsome ballet dancer named Ron catch the eye of Rose, a much-married socialite and they tumble headlong into a passionate affair. But the path ne’er did run smooth – she’s suffering from a serious condition and has a powerful fiancé, and it’s not altogether clear that his motivations lie much beyond wanting a sugar mama. As her health continues to decline and his career hits the bumpers though, it becomes apparent that emotions run extremely deep but sadly, so too does the British predilection for repression. 

In some ways, one can see how a duff production of this could have alienated audiences hungry for change instead of watching stiff upper lips barely quivering. It is essentially quite a static piece and often veers close to the melodramatic but fortunately, Michael Oakley’s production has considerably sharpened up the play. There’s a rich vein of humour (the truth beneath the accents is wittily done) to contrast with the often fraught goings-on but the key to its success is in revealing the emotional desolation that adhering to societal pressure wreaks on people. And in this, he is blessed with a scintillating lead performance from Rachael Stirling, a stunning presence for so intimate a room.

As Rose Fish, she simply dances with vivaciousness, living vicariously against doctor’s orders as if the thrill of rebelling against doctor/fiancé/companion is as compelling as the passion aroused by her new lover. Stirling shows us the pragmatic steel of Rose too – she is a woman with a past after all – as she discovers the truth of Ron’s own history and finds herself having to decide what it most important to her. She is supported magnificently by Susan Tracy as her erstwhile companion Hettie, unable to hide her genuine compassion even through her exasperated frustration and utterly moving in the second act.

Martin McCreadie’s Ron is a typically Tennessee Williams-esque lothario, emblematic of Rattigan’s unattainable sexual preferences, and brings complex notes to what appears to be a superficial character and there’s strong support from Phil Cheadle’s banker Kurt, determined not to lose anything, whether fiancées or games of cards, and David Shelley as Sam, an important figure from Ron’s past. Variation on a Theme may not quite be the masterpieces that revivals of After the Dance and Flare Path have emerged to be, but it is a continuing reminder that the reassessment of Rattigan is a most fair one and the opportunity to see Stirling in such surroundings is not one to be passed up.

The show may be sold out but keep an eye on their website for any possible additional performances and it is always worth trying for returns from 6.30pm on the night.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 22nd March

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