Less Than Kind
Jermyn Street Theatre January-February 2011
The Terrence Rattigan Centenary kicks off with this 'lost' play, the original version of what, after considerable alteration, became 1944's Love In Idleness, a star vehicle for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
A programme note explains that Lunt convinced the playwright to soften the play's political content somewhat and build up Lunt's role to match or even dominate his wife's.
But I think you would be hard-pressed to find anything especially harsh or unbalanced about the version presented here for the first time, which plays as a generally light and amiable rom-com for grown-ups.
A boy evacuated to Canada in 1939 returns near the end of the war to discover his widowed mother living with a rich industrialist and politician whom he immediately detests. The parallels to Hamlet (which are actually what inspired the play) are duly noted and joked about, with the boy's knee-jerk socialism adding a political layer to his moral and Oedipal crises.
The play actually focuses on the older pair, as they try to cope with the lad's determination to destroy their relationship, and I won't be giving anything away when I say that he is ultimately defeated - or co-opted - through a satisfyingly ingenious stratagem.
The political thread is a bit problematic and the weakest part of the play. Inevitably, there are some debates between the lad and the older man.
Although the boy's socialism is undoubtedly closer to Rattigan's heart than the rich man's complacent Toryism, his obvious immaturity and rote-learned dogmatism invariably make him seem ridiculous if not actually irritating.
It is right that the needs of comedy should trump the playwright's politics, but one senses a tension in those scenes, and the author's wish that the boy didn't have to sound so very much a fool.
Elsewhere, though, the evening is carried comfortably by some excellent comic writing, the warm relationship between the lovers, the surprisingly unhistrionic appearances of the man's not-quite-divorced wife, and the play's confident sense that even when things seem to be going most wrong they will turn out all right.
Sara Crowe has fun playing a woman not born to be a social butterfly but taking to it quite happily while still having a salt-of-the-earth core, and Michael Simkins convinces us that even a Tory can be a nice guy.
Director Adrian Brown slips only in guiding David Osmond to be a little too stiff-necked and priggish as the boy, making it very difficult to find anything attractive about the character, while Caroline Head offers a nice cameo as the amusedly looking-on almost-ex-wife.
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Review - Less Than Kind - Jermyn Street Theatre 2011