A short review cannot do justice to the formidable attention to period and dramatic detail contained in this superb play. This is not a perfect production, but it shows clearly what one would have to look like. To date, Kenny Morgan is the best new play I have reviewed this year, without a doubt, and the fact that it has such a careful ear and eye for tradition, while in no way in thrall to it, is perhaps revealing.
Mike Poulton’s play was first performed at the Arcola back in the Spring, and now returns with the same cast for a limited autumn season. This website offered an enthusiastic review at its first outing and a second viewing confirms the qualities of the play and most of the acting, with one important reservation based on casting.
The author has shaved some ten minutes off the running time without discernible results either way, though on balance the loss of detail in the presentation of some of the minor characters is regrettable. Still, this is a very fine play and production, fully worthy of the carefully crafted Rattigan originals that it deliberately echoes. It deserves a West-End run with a faithful adaptation of the outstanding and wholly plausible set, and a transfer of the majority of the original cast.
It is particularly helpful to have the programme in the form of the play text because it is a play that repays re-reading, not just for the nods in the direction of various works by Rattigan, but also to reveal the careful symmetry between what we see here and what Rattigan chose to depict in The Deep Blue Sea, often acknowledged to be his masterpiece, and certainly one of his most often performed works.
What Poulton has done is to take the bones of an incident from Rattigan’s personal life that inspired that study of Hester Collyer’s decline and fall and expand it into a parallel study of the costs (and opportunities) of concealment and repression.
It expands to consider the stigma associated with suicide in the post-war era, and – more broadly – the issue of whether our lives really enjoy genuine free will or in fact wind their way to ends predetermined by our own personal demons and irreconcilable hopes and fears.
Another theme that is more prominent here than in the Rattigan original is narcissism, particularly the narcissism that goes with artistic creativity in general and the theatrical world in particular: is it inevitable or avoidable? What are its costs and benefits, human and professional?
Kenny Morgan lived intermittently with Rattigan through the 1940s, but never as his acknowledged partner. His initial success as a film actor waned and by the end of the decade he had found another partner, Alec Lennox, with whom he lived in dingy digs in Camden Town. He exchanged a gold-tipped but kept life for one that was penurious, but apparently more honest.
However, Alec is a bi-sexual drunk whose affections are largely reserved for himself and who is quite prepared to sponge off Kenny’s dwindling money. Which life is worse – glittery dependence or semi-abusive authenticity? This is Kenny’s choice, though as the other characters try to suggest, there are other and better alternative ways forward as well.
We begin, as with Rattigan, with a bungled suicide attempt. Here much of the exposition, both comic and interpretative, is done by the landlady, Mrs Simpson (Marlene Sidaway) and a concerned neighbour Daffyd Lloyd (Matthew Bulgo). They articulate for the audience two different contemporary reactions to suicide, one censorious, the other sympathetic.
There is also a lot of well achieved class-based comedy here that brings the social world of the 1940s vividly to life. A great deal of silent work is done by the magnificently seedy set created by Robert Innes Hopkins, which captures the claustrophobic, grimy, shilling-in-the-meter gloom of a London where the shadow of wartime and rationing looms lengthily, and chain-smoking is a necessary antidote. It is like being on the set of The Ladykillers….
The two acts revolve around the interventions of three people who could influence Kenny’s decision whether or not to repeat his suicide attempt. Deep down there is a sense of anticipated defeat about Paul Keating’s fragile, unstable but unsparingly honest portrayal of Kenny. It is rare nowadays to see an actor so far into the role that he has difficulty emerging from it at the curtain, but that is the extent of his sweat-soaked commitment, especially in the relentless second half where he has to raise himself from one pitch of intensity of despair to another as the plot sinks his teeth into him.
Ultimately, Kenny’s stance is that he will not live a lie, even a privileged one, and if his career has gone, he has nothing to live for beyond a love that also turns out to be illusory. Like Hester he is too honest and too uncompromising to accept the long succession of trade-offs that might offer a way through. It is necessarily a reasonable perspective, but a wholly plausible and explicable position for a young gay man to be placed in at that time.
The rare quality of this play resides not just in the dramatizing of one man’s ever diminishing circles of despair, but in the fair-mindedness with which the other people’s perspectives, congenial or unfeeling, are presented. Director Lucy Bailey gives the actors space and time, occasionally a little too much of each in the first half, to tell their complex stories, but the result really delivers.
Mr Ritter (George Irving), a struck-off Jewish refugee doctor, offers the first kind of intervention: he not only saves Kenny’s life twice but is given the chance to demonstrate tough love of a compelling kind. His final speech in which he compares Kenny’s situation to those who had no choice over life or death in the Holocaust is a necessary argument in any dramatization of these issues, a perspective that is powerfully presented here in an unforced way that compels our attention even if not Kenny’s.
As Rattigan, Simon Dutton offers a portrait of world-weary wisdom and sad self-knowledge that is nevertheless as far from cynicism as could be. His love for Kenny is made plain in all sorts of intimate, small-scale ways, and yet he cannot and will not give him the open acknowledgement that would make the difference. Rattigan is tough minded enough to know that his public success is fragile, dependent on the maintenance of a certain persona of glamorous heterosexual allure which he cannot afford to jettison.
There is also a creative recognition lurking there that his most original work stems from the study of this repression and falsity: his double life is a kind of necessary precondition for the secretion of his saddest and best-realised characters, in a way that it was not for – say – Noel Coward. Ultimately he sacrifices Kenny on the altar of art, not society, and they both know it.
Finally we come to the perspective of Alec, the worthless lover, played here again by Pierro Niel-Mee. In some ways this is a convincing portrayal. We get the petulance and the narcissicm and the casual cruelty, displayed not just towards Kenny but also to his brief conquest Norma (a quietly effective exercise in compassion by Lowenna Melrose).
What we do not see at all here is the dangerous debonair glamour and devastating good looks that we are told in the play is what wins Kenny over. It is in the text and needs to be in the action too whatever may be said about not casting roles on surfaces alone. This is a case where surfaces are crucial.
Otherwise there are insufficient reasons for even a self-punishing Kenny to stay in the relationship. Nor is the exceptional cruelty and self-absorption of the final scene going to register its full impact unless it comes from the mouth of someone who knows he can get away with anything, and still find those who will come back for more.
The selflessness of Kenny cannot be fully understood unless you see why it falls so easy prey to the supreme selfishness of Alec.
A short review cannot do justice to the formidable attention to period and dramatic detail contained in this superb play. This is not a perfect production, but it shows clearly what one would have to look like. To date this is best new play I have reviewed this year, without a doubt, and that fact that it has such a careful ear and eye for tradition, while in no way in thrall to it, is perhaps revealing.