You may think you know your Terence Rattigan, but have you ever come across Love in Idleness before? I bet you haven’t. This is, in fact, the first London production of the play since it originally graced the boards of the Lyric in 1944, two years after Flare Path and two years before The Winslow Boy. It’s easy to forget Rattigan’s status in the first half of the 20th century; but to give you some context, Love in Idleness was one of three plays he had on at the same time in Shaftesbury Avenue in the 1940s, and he is the only playwright to have notched more than 1000 performances for two separate plays – French Without Tears and While The Sun Shines. That’s some feat. No wonder a few years later John Osborne and Kenneth Tynan were so jealous.
Love in Idleness is actually a rewrite of Rattigan’s unpublished play Less Than Kind, created at the behest of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne as the perfect vehicle for that darling American stage couple (although, to add to the confusion, it was called O Mistress Mine on Broadway). For this new Menier production, that seasoned expert of the stage Trevor Nunn has created a new piece by placing Less Than Kind and Love in Idleness side by side and synthesising the two. The result is a fine creation that blends the comedy of Lunt and Fontanne, heavily sprinkled with Rattigan wit, with a story of political argument highlighting progressive versus reactionary, youth versus experience. Ironically, the character of Michael Brown preceded that of Jimmy Porter to vie for the status of Angry Young Man by a good twelve years. No wonder John Osborne and Kenneth Tynan were so jealous. That’s twice I’ve had to say that.
Back in 1944, children who had been evacuated during the war were just starting to come home. Olivia Brown last saw her son Michael almost four years ago; and since then her life has changed more than somewhat. No longer living in a dingy bedsit in Baron’s Court, she’s become the lover and co-habitor of none other than Cabinet Minister for New Tanks, Sir John Fletcher, in his swish pad in Westminster. When Michael, now nearly 18 and something of a lefty, returns home, he is taken aback by the change in his mother’s status, appearance and behaviour. Something’s gotta give, but who, or what, will it be?
I came to this show with no prior knowledge of what it was about and no particular expectation, aside from the fact that a) it’s the Menier so it’s bound to be good and b) it’s already secured its West End transfer and that speaks for itself. Nevertheless, I still don’t think I was expecting too much from this production. Well that just shows how wrong I can be. This is an absolute corker (as Michael might say) of a production, immaculately performed throughout, at times blisteringly funny, at others superbly moving, and really, one must ask, why has this little nugget been hiding from us for all these years?
Trevor Nunn has coaxed his brilliant cast to get the maximum laughter, tension and pathos out of Rattigan’s characters whilst always remaining natural, unforced and very character-driven. That delightful opening scene, where Eve Best’s Olivia is draped over her couch arranging guests for dinner by telephone, tells you so much about her character with such simplicity, clarity and humour. In fact, it’s those physical moments in the play that really communicate what the characters are all about, from Olivia’s tender and ever-so-slightly sexual undoing of John’s jacket and giving his feet a gentle massage, to Michael’s continuously flinging himself face down on his bed in grand gestures of teenage harrumph.
Visually it’s charming, with perfect costumes by Stephen Brimson Lewis, from Olivia’s trouser-suit to Diana’s Ascot chic and even Miss Wentworth’s artily dotty creation; I appreciated the use of the attractive but commonplace Susie Cooper crockery – perfect for the era; and the Pathe newsreels, projected onto the translucent curtain, that divide the scenes, and add an informative background. Although, beware when the curtain forcefully swishes open past you; I was sat, legs outstretched, on the corner of Row A where it takes a 90 degree turn and the curtain very nearly took me with it.
About three minutes in to the play, I completely understood what it is Sir John would have seen in Olivia. Eve Best gives a most scintillating, enticing, and endearing performance as the Baron’s Court wife lured into the high life of Tory politics; adoring the surroundings and accoutrements of Dorchester dinners and tittle-tattle, relishing the demands of being a society hostess. She really would spark up an older man’s life and no mistake. Where it comes to uniting her new life with her old, she shows her struggle of understanding the demands of youth and upholding her familial commitments: as the poet once said, I thought that you’d want what I’d want, sorry my dear. Her changed appearance in the final scene provides a stark contrast to the glamour that preceded it, and shows how she is the only character to have made a genuine change in an attempt to help those around her. Ms Best is one of those actors that you just can’t take your eyes off. A stunning performance.
Anthony Head’s Sir John is a distinguished, largely mellow, extraordinarily patient man, unless his routine is interrupted or he is pushed just that one inch too far. Unlike Olivia, he is totally used to the trappings of wealth, so his disdainful contemplation of catching a sequence of three buses in order to get to the café at Puffins Corner is absolutely hilarious. Radiating power, but through nobility rather than mere strength, he completely captures the essence of Sir John, which includes his unconventional handling of his wife. Mrs C thought he really knew how to carry off a Tuxedo. I’ll say no more.
Edward Bluemel, as young Michael, is new to me but is definitely a candidate for One To Watch. Perfectly expressing that awkward age between boy and man, his Michael is both feistily uncooperative and easily malleable at the same time. I loved his scene with Mr Head, as they prowl either side of the sofa like two caged tigers ready to rip each other to shreds but far too well brought up to do so. Idealistic and petulant, but also knowing when he’s beat, this is a gem of a role for a young actor and Mr Bluemel really handles it with aplomb.
I’ve only seen Helen George before on TV following her Strictly journey so didn’t know what to expect from her as the wronged (maybe) Lady Fletcher. Certainly her unexpected appearance just before the interval lifts the whole play and adds a new dynamism as the audience can’t quite work out whether she is more sinned against or sinning; simply incompatible to her husband is probably the closest you’ll get. It’s a lovely, assertive, slightly strident, beautifully composed performance; again, her interaction with Mr Bluemel is hilarious, ridiculing his use of archaic words, as is the cringingly excruciating scene where she meets Olivia, in a delightfully underplayed exercise of oneupwomanship. There’s excellent support from Vivienne Rochester as Sir John’s remarkably humourless assistant Miss Dell, and from Nicola Sloane as the respectable and loyal parlourmaid Polton, and the arty yet insubstantial Miss Wentworth.
I found myself absolutely glued to this play, and when the final scene fitted all the pieces together so nicely and with an amusingly happy ending, I found myself saying out loud “what a beautiful production!” as the lights dimmed but lingered on its protagonists. No surprise at all that this sold-out show warrants its West End transfer, intertwining as it does its rather beautiful depiction of 1940s elegance with its very relevant undercurrent of political anger. I thought it was magic! And if you missed it at the Menier you can catch it at the Apollo in May and June – but you’d better be quick, tickets are getting scarce.