By Terence Rattigan
Directed by Edward Hall
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Date: Monday 3rd March 2008
This is one of my favourite plays, but I have seen productions I prefer to this one. Rattigan is the master of restrained emotions, of showing people who have deep feelings within themselves that rarely, if ever, find expression, and when they do, it’s usually not convenient for themselves or others. Here the emotions were clearly displayed, almost overly so, and that feeling of social restraint was completely lost. I couldn’t see why Hester, the wife, wouldn’t just say, “Sod this for a game of soldiers”, and leave with the husband the first time he came calling, but then we wouldn’t have had a full evening, which would have been a shame.
The set was the usual tatty flat. This one was tattier than most, and the back wall had a see-through cut-away so that we could see the action on the landing and stairs. The performances were fine – no criticism of the actors is intended here – but the direction made the whole play seem flabbier than it is. There’s a lot of power under the surface, but when it’s not held back, it doesn’t come across as strongly. Greta Scacchi was a fairly robust Hester, who looked as if she’d be perfectly capable of seeing off several Freddies. Probably captained her school hockey team, you know the sort. She was more restrained in the final scene with Mr Miller, and that worked better for me. Simon Williams was almost too good as the husband. He came across as more understanding and less straight-laced than I’ve seen before, which was fine in terms of relating to the way his character suffers as he sees the woman he loves going under, but doesn’t help to explain why she doesn’t just pack a bag and scarper back to a reasonably good life with a loving husband. I would have.
And given this Freddie, I might not have waited till my husband turned up. I couldn’t make out why Dugald Bruce-Lockhart was veering into campness in his portrayal of Freddie. I realised afterwards that they might have been trying to suggest that the problem with the relationship was that Freddie was a closet homosexual, and so couldn’t love Hester as she wanted to be loved. If so, I can see where they’re coming from. Rattigan was gay, and this play was triggered by his own grief at an ex-lover’s suicide. Not being able to put such matters explicitly on the stage (although the first draft was apparently about two gay men), Rattigan changed the characters round to be more acceptable.
It’s a fine idea, and with another play, or another production, it might work, but although Rattigan has plenty going on inside each character, he doesn’t have a lot of ambiguity going on in his plays. Freddie is clearly an ex-RAF pilot who is having trouble adjusting to regular life after the excitement and lack of responsibility of the war years. If he is a closet gay, he’s not out even to himself, and if they were trying to insert this as a possible motivation for his character, then I feel they did the play a disservice. Trust the text. Whatever the cause, I felt this portrayal unbalanced the play, making it more about Freddie than about Hester’s unreasoning and uncontrollable passion. Given all that, Dugald gave a fine performance of a character that Rattigan didn’t write. His borrowing of the shilling to leave for Hester brought a gasp from the audience. It’s certainly a shocking moment, and came across as well as I can remember.
The other supports were fine. Jacqueline Tong was good as the gossipy landlady Mrs Elton, while Geoff Breton and Rebecca O’Mara grated just enough as the unsophisticated young couple determined to help, and gave us a nice insight into other people’s relationships. Jack Tarlton as Jackie Jackson did a good job of showing us just how embarrassing Freddie had become. But the accolades for the evening had to go to Tim McMullan as Mr Miller, the foreign ex-doctor who helps Hester in more ways than just the medical. He conveyed a sense of that character’s hinterland, which I often feel is as big as most people’s countries. I was moved to tears as he did his best to persuade Hester not to have another go at suicide.
For once, Hester’s paintings were actually visible on the stage, including a study of Freddie. Unfortunately, they were of a quality to stretch credulity when Hester’s husband professed to like one of them. The earlier piece over the fireplace was better, but now I see why they’re often left invisible to the audience.
Although it wasn’t entirely to my liking, I still enjoyed the evening, as it’s a very good play, and the production did have its good moments.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me