Mike Poulton’s masterful new play, Kenny Morgan, is a smart and touching homage to the work of Terence Rattigan. With echoes of Separate Tables, The Browning Version, In Praise Of Love and, of course, The Deep Blue Sea, the play Rattigan wrote following the events which are dramatised in Kenny Morgan, the play has the singular virtue of being modern and old-fashioned at the same time; brutal and unforgettable.
The story goes that Terence Rattigan had a love affair with a young, beautiful and promising actor, Kenny Morgan, over a ten year period. It was heartfelt but tempestuous, and conducted during a time when sodomy was a crime. Morgan left Rattigan for a younger, prettier, but bisexual actor; the tempestuousness remained but penury was a new addition to Morgan’s life.
Eventually, Morgan committed suicide by gassing himself. When told of the death of Morgan, Rattigan was said to be struck dumb for about twenty minutes. When finally he spoke, he announced he had the plot of his new play – The Deep Blue Sea.
Censorship being as it was then, in 1949, Rattigan could not write openly about homosexuality. Thus the central characters in The Deep Blue Sea were heterosexual. Poulton’s starting point for Kenny Morgan was to imagine how Rattigan might have written the play if the censorship laws were not in play.
The result is a triumph. Economical writing, carefully drawn characters, complicated romantic entanglements and issues, a painstakingly domestic canvas and skilful unveiling of differing societal views: Poulton’s finely written and, ultimately, devastating play is an indictment about intolerance which, despite its period setting and trappings, is vital and revelatory about this century’s views about love, lust and understanding.
The small space at the Arcola is transformed by Robert Innes Hopkins’ ingenious design into a small, shabby flat in Camden Town. Furnishings are sparse but immediately evoke the period, and the sense of desperation that overwhelms the very air the inhabitants breathe. There is no money here; just alcohol, cigarettes, dirty sheets and gas meters.
The play begins with the discovery of a man’s body, near naked, unconscious in front of a gas heater. That botched suicide attempt both defines and explains the narrative: What led to the suicide attempt? Will the man survive? Will the police be called? Who cares for him enough to protect him from his demons? What are those demons?
The body is discovered by people who don’t really know the man. His landlady, a neighbour, another neighbour (who is a struck off Doctor.) They live in the same building but have very different lives, separate and distinct. This notion of compartmentalised life threads through the play in various ways, a critical unifying theme.
Hopkins underlines it superbly by a series of single pipes which, like a forest, surround the living space of the tragic man, the titular Kenny Morgan. They exemplify the notion of lives lived separately but together, and they constantly remind of the ever present possibility of gas/death.
Skilled lighting from Jack Knowles adds a sepia-like effect to proceedings, catching the twirling cigarette smoke tendrils and heightening their effect. Everything has a hazy feel to it, as if the gas was tangible in the air, choking life from the space. Knowles also uses light to emphasise the seedy nature of the lives led in the block; darkness lurks everywhere and threatens to spill out endlessly. Just a single window, unwashed for aeons, suggests the glimpse of the outside world.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Everyone seems precisely in late Forties mode; the dialogue may have been written in 2106 but it has the feel of sixty years earlier and the cast treat it with requisite care.
There is nothing old-fashioned or crinkly about Poulton’s work; like Rattigan, he is economic with words but those he uses are apt, redolent with unspoken meaning, awash with nuance. Precision is the name of this particular game.
Marlene Sidaway plays Mrs Simpson, the char-lady/concierge who looks after the day to day issues of the building where Morgan lives. It is she who opens the door to the flat and, with Dafydd Lloyd (Matthew Bulgo) discovers Morgan’s unconscious form.
Mrs Simpson is that television staple: outrageously self-righteous, incredibly nosy, gruffly indignant, fussy and judgmental, but with a streak of self-preservation that can withstand any eventuality.
Sidaway makes her gloriously, garishly real, while looking like Doris Hare’s On The Buses character. She can make a cup of tea and tut-tut for England. Although the character is essentially unlikeable, for reasons which remain obscure, Sidaway softens Simpson’s edges. This is strange as her role is to be The One Who Disapproves.
Bulgo is much more successful, very clearly fleshing out Lloyd as a sad, lonely loser with a good Admiralty job but no real chance of happiness. So good is Bulgo at making Lloyd non-descript, that when he describes himself as “ordinary” it really rings true.
However, there is more to Lloyd than kindness and ordinariness; he has his own secret, one which may, in fact, be secret from Lloyd himself. But the effect of the secret compounds Morgan’s downward spiral. Bulgo’s performance is subtle and sure: he is the One Who Doesn’t Know How To Help.
The third neighbour, and the most interesting character of the three neighbours, is George Irving’s Mr Ritter, the struck-off Jewish Doctor. He is as phlegmatic and practical as might be imagined, but he is also possessed of a good sense of humour and an acute eye for the realities of situations. Irving is a joy to watch and his final, very compassionate scene with Morgan is splendidly done.
Simon Dutton is in exemplary form as the avuncular, assiduously dressed and vowelled playwright, Rattigan – Terry as Morgan calls him. Dutton epitomises success and, while clearly displaying a guarded affection for Morgan, never commits to or even suggests anything other than a close friendship, with benefits, between them.
Like a kind of odd amalgam of Oscar Wilde and Somerset Maugham, Dutton’s Rattigan is a cat’s cradle of cool reserve and unwilling commitment – he has tangles everywhere but he keeps his hand close at all times.
He offers Morgan help, but never insists upon it. He could take charge, implement a full rescue but he doesn’t: he is too concerned about the equilibrium of his “do what he likes life”. He is the One Who Could But Didn’t.
Dutton really shines in this quite difficult role – he manages to be charming and likeable in the face of his indifference and inaction.
Lowenna Melrose manages the near impossible: she does not alienate the audience despite her character, Norma Hastings, being, effectively, the nail in the coffin for the relationship between Morgan and his lover, Alec Lennox.
Hastings is a budding actress and colleague of Lennox. But she is not willing to just learn lines with Lennox; she is happy to have sex with him on the sheets he shares with Morgan. It is not love nor does it seem to be lust; merely physical release. Yet she knows the cost her dalliance will mean for Morgan should her couplings with Lennox be revealed. She is the One Who Doesn’t Give A Toss.
But, in Melrose’s skilful performance, there is more depth to Hastings; she possesses a weary fragility, a slightly desperate sensibility, a haughty indifference to Lennox’ flighty passions.
Melrose makes Hastings both vamp and victim; a woman used by a man that only a society riddled with secrets and sublimations could create.
Poulton’s Kenny Morgan features one clear cut villain. Other characters may do ill-advised things or make reprehensible statements, but only one is so self-obsessed and casually cruel as to chill the blood with statements like this:
You know perhaps the best thing for you – best for all of us actually – is to go ahead and gas yourself. And, if you do for God’s sake make a proper of it this time. No regrets. No looking back. No bungling. Make it clean. Here. Here’s a shilling for the meter. Frankly, Kenny I don’t care what you do as long as it doesn’t involve me. I’m moving on. ‘Bye then.
This character is Alec Lennox, the young, very beautiful man that Morgan adores. Cold, indifferent, self-serving, Lennox is the One Who Cares Only For Himself.
Pierro Niel-Mee is not really attractive enough for the role, although he is a good looking actor. But the script is riddled with references which suggest a superlative beauty, sufficient to make strangers stop and offer opportunities. Lennox is the Bosie of this piece; he needs to be Brad Pitt from Thelma and Louise or something similar. But, he is not.
Actually, looks would not matter so much if Niel-Mee was willing to be ice cold in the role. But, again, he is not. Like too many actors who play thoroughly despicable people, Niel-Mee plays for sympathy, hoping not to be utterly loathed. It’s a misjudgement though and it takes some sheen off Poulton’s script and Paul Keating’s intense work as Morgan.
Lennox is not a good person. Nearly everyone else in the play is, albeit to varying degrees. To work properly, Kenny Morgan needs his Iago, his Moriarty, his Darth Vader – Lennox is that adversary, although one wrapped in beauty and sexual desire.
Directorial choice seems the issue here. Lucy Bailey has not extracted the right performance from Neil-Mee; she may not have seen the need for it. Aspects of the production are soft when they should be sharp, opaque when they should be clear, cloudy when they should be crystal clear.
A smarter, cleverer director would have given full value to the tempestuous emotions swirling between the characters here – Bailey seeks to restrain them, in a mistaken notion of what the essence of Rattigan is. It is a real pity.
But there is no inadequacy about Paul Keating’s superb turn as Kenny Morgan. He is astonishingly good, conflicted, confounded, confused and utterly utterly broken. Keating misses no beats – he makes every moment real, poignant and pulsing with truth. Like all great actors, he makes the performances of his fellow actors better because of his generosity and commitment.
Every aspect of his performance is electrifying: the response to being rescued from the gas; his awkwardness with his neighbours; his hopeless love for Lennox; his appalled silence over Hastings; his awkward communion with Lloyd; his surprise at Ritter’s honesty; the see-saw relationship with Rattigan. Keating makes it all work unfeasibly convincingly.
The most interesting aspect of Kenny Morgan is that nothing has changed, really, despite the passage of time. Rich older men still take advantage of young pretty men; society says it accepts gay marriage but it delights in celebrating missteps that gay couples make; gossips are everywhere; the pressure to conform is greater than ever; love does not conquer all. Suicide is still an option preferred by too many young men to being who they are.
Kenny Morgan is a wonderful piece of illuminating writing. It reflects Rattigan’s times, but like Rattigan’s best works it has much to say about modern times. It is grounded by a central, superb performance from the gifted Paul Keating and some excellent supporting performances.
With a better, more incisive director, Kenny Morgan could be the production of the decade.