Trevor Nunn and Terence Rattigan seem like odd bedfellows, and yet their theatrical relationship yields real dividends. Love In Idleness, like Flare Path before it, sees Nunn wringing every bit of life, and joy, from a Rattigan play that has long since been forgotten. Delicious and scintillating performances from Eve Best and Anthony Head propel the production into undoubted five star territory. The announced West End transfer is no surprise at all.
The Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, long a creator of smash hit productions of revivals of musicals, seems on a real roll when it comes to smash hit non-musicals. With Travesties a true sensation on the West End, and a starry Lettice and Lovage next off the blocks, the near perfect confection that is Terence Rattigan’s Love In Idleness confirms the notion that Travesties suggested – the Menier has finally cracked the right formula for making non-musicals work in its intimate space.
Strictly speaking, the production is more a Trevor Nunn adaptation of Rattigan’s work rather than a revival. Nunn has sewn together the best bits from Rattigan’s twice-bitten cherry: the original version, Less Than Kind, and the Rattigan rewrite of that, Love In Idleness, from 1944. The result really is a case of the apprentice making magic with the master’s discarded spells.
Rattigan was a master craftsman of theatrical works. His narratives are meticulously planned, his dialogue sparkles with genuine wit and warmth and the situations he prods and pokes speak easily to his audiences. In the wrong hands, his plays can feel creaky and tiresome; in the right hands, they can sparkle and dazzle as well as Coward or Wilde.
Nunn’s are not the wrong hands here, and there really is a fizz and joy to the whole proceedings. From the moment the curtain opens, its rings clatterring like a manual typewriter, to disclose the home of Sir John Fletcher, another world is summoned into view, one that you are fully prepared for by the use of war time film reels that set period, tone, and expectations firmly in the 1940s, a time of sacrifice, patriotism, and change.
Stephen Brunson Lewis’ set design is delicious, impressively grand in the scenes at Sir John’s, undeniably bleak, but manageable, in the scene in the Barons Court flat. Elegance is conveyed artfully in the grand house, mostly by cocktails and attitude, but the period furniture looks exactly right. In the more squalid abode, frugal reality shines through every surface and there is an inspired miming of a hallway which heightens the sense of smallness which is everywhere.
Paul Pyant’s lighting design works very well in highlighting the differences between the two locations, and in depicting the world outside in the one where money is no object. Somehow the lighting in Sir John’s feels grand and expensive; at the Barons Court flat, the sense of the coin fuelled meter is ever present, the atmosphere slightly grim, falsely cheery.
Wardrobe Mistress Corrie Darling ensures the costumes are impeccable. Lewis has designed great costumes – especially for Eve Best, whose transformation from society Queen to prototype Hilda Ogden and back again – is seamless. Helen George’s fabulous frock and hat make her initial entrance a moment of hilarity and shock. First rate wigs and make-up (Campbell Young associates) ice the cake. Everything about the production looks and feels exquisitely right. For the period, the play and getting in the groove for the play.
This is all just as well. Because Love In Idleness is very much of its time, despite the fact that it’s themes and narrative threads still speak eloquently. The way to extract the full value of the play is to place the audience in as similar a position as it’s original audiences might have found it. You need a clear sense of that time to see the value and interest of the play in our time. Nunn and Lewis achieve this with considerable and charming skill.
The central character is Olivia Brown, an attractive widow, whose son was evacuated to Canada to escape the ravages of World War Two, and who has fallen in love with Sir John, a rich industrialist (tanks, you know) who is trapped in a loveless marriage. Trapped is how he feels, because his status in the War Cabinet means he can’t divorce his wife and marry Olivia. Instead, they live in blissful sin; society seems to approve because society is always dining with them. Even the staid Housekeeper, Polton, approves.
When he returns to London, however, Michael Brown does not approve. He has developed left-thinking tendencies, a result of youthfulness exuberance and Canada, and despises everything he thinks Sir John represents. He seems to think he is Hamlet, his mother Gertrude, and Sir John, Claudius, and he stretches Sir John’s patience in a variety of ways.
After a cruel trick is played by Michael, Olivia realises that she must choose between the two men in her life. She chooses Michael and leaves behind life with Sir John, as she and Michael return to straitened circumstances in Barons Court.
With Michael infatuated with a mysterious woman and Sir John vowing never to see Olivia again, because that is the best way to honour her choice, Olivia’s future seems set. But Sir John is not a cabinet minister for nothing…
Rattigan pokes fun at many things during the course of Love In Idleness: society circles, political extremes, the right, left and centre of political thought, fashion, attitudes to women and sexuality, generation gaps that gape. His most subversive notion might be that right-wing politicians can have a heart, an understanding of life, feelings even.
But political comment seems of lesser interest to Rattigan than exploring the heart and mind of a smart, beautiful woman to whom the world is unkind. In many ways, Olivia is a foreshadowing of Hester Collyer from The Deep Blue Sea, although Hester is a darker, deeper character. Olivia’s choices are between her happiness or that of her preposterous son. But for Sir John’s behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings, Olivia might have ended her story in the kind of desperate despair Hester begins hers.
When Olivia chooses to leave Sir John, it does not seem to be about her duty as a mother so much, as her guilt about what she has done in her son’s absence. This is reflected, too, in her unwillingness to admit her union with Sir John to Michael. Without Michael, she is free to have a happy life as Sir John’s partner; with Michael, she can only insist on drudgery in Barons Court. Rattigan doesn’t think much of this categorisation of the role of women, and even less about pouting, petulant, petty sons who want their mothers pressed in service to them for life.
Love In Idleness, at its simplest, ruminates on the fault line between pleasure and guilt, between blood and passion, between duty and self-interest. The times may have changed, but the issues remain the same. As is usual in such matters, Rattigan wraps up his salient points in a complex narrative; like a meticulous whodunnit, clues are hidden in open view, and, in the end, all the cards are on the table and you see them for what they are. What distinguishes the play, however, is its spirit, its glittering gaiety, its champagne fizz, its humane humour.
Central to this is a radiant performance from the remarkable Eve Best. She makes Olivia totally accessible, easily understandable, winning and wonderful. Grace is at a premium, so is style. Even when Olivia makes a harsh remark, Best wraps it up in gossamer ribbons, erasing rancour. He first encounter with Sir John’s wife, Diana, a pert and pink Helen George, is sheer comic delight, perfectly in character, fabulously funny. Even when in Hilda Ogden mode in the final scene, Best is optimistic and bright, a bolt of sunshine in a neglected valley.
Best speaks the dialogue with an essential urgency which gives it life and sense. Whether cajoling or dissembling, cooing or coercive, Best makes Olivia utterly winning, intensely likeable, refreshingly honest. She is superb.
Best has extraordinary support from Anthony Head, who is deliciously urbane, though curiously accented, as Sir John. They completely convince as lovers who are utterly devoted to each other, their physicality akin to that of Romeo and Juliet, their minds linked so that sentences are ended together, thoughts strike simultaneously and pacts are made, whether spoken or not. This is a couple who know each other, and what they are together, and who value it all with equal vehemence.
Smooth and dignified, Head’s Sir John is like a classic properly aged whiskey, and his performance leaves a warm glow. His exchanges with Edward Bluemel’s Michael are perfectly judged, a mixture of irritation, exasperation and commitment. He tries to understand and like Michael; Michael lives in his own self-centred world. His anguish at the loss of Olivia is conveyed with ease; his quiet determination to reunite with Olivia sparkles in his eye, animates his step. Seeing Head on stage again, in such glorious form with Best, is a real treat.
Bluemel has the right look, although his hair is ludicrously thick and intrusive, constantly needing flicking away, but in the charm department he is somewhat lacking. Michael comes across as repellant and manipulative; it is difficult to see how even the most devoted mother could overlook his egregious conduct. Bluemel needs to imbue the character with Best’s charm; Michael needs to be believable for the play to work at its best.
George has this down pat, and she makes the flighty, self-obsessed Diana a triumph of charming destruction. Her initial encounter with Best’s Olivia takes the antics of the Gwendolyn/Cicely tea duel (The Importance Of Being Earnest) to the dizzying next level. It is clear what Head’s Sir John and her other suitors find attractive about her. George makes her almost irresistible.
There is good support work from Nicola Sloane and Vivienne Rochester, each of whom play stock stereotype characters with flair. Sloane presents two markedly different women in Polton and Miss Wentworth; both are complete, both are a delight. Rochester represents the hard edge of bureaucracy, status and power, and her steely presence ensures Sir John is seen as out of step with the rigidity of power and influence.
This is that rare joy: a revival of a forgotten play, which has enormous appeal to modern audiences, both as a slice of theatrical history and an exemplar of the proposition that there are no bad plays, merely bad directors and bad actors. (Sir John and Michael could debate that latter proposition for years).
Great play, great director, great actors (Best and Head) – like a perfect martini, it will leave you stirred but not shaken.