Less Than Kind – February 2012


By Terence Rattigan

Directed by Adrian Brown

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Saturday 18th February 2012

From the program notes, this play had originally been intended as a star vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence, but went through considerable changes when the Lunts became involved. Alfred Lunt led Rattigan to make so many subtle changes that it was effectively rewritten to make his part bigger and more attractive, along with other changes. The title was also changed, to Love In Idleness, and I reckon Steve and I must have seen a production of that many years ago as the plot was so familiar. This was the original version approved by the Lord Chamberlain, although there had already been some changes as the Cabinet Minister was Canadian instead of British, and certainly wasn’t unpleasant as far as we could see.

The set for the first two acts was a drawing room in a fairly posh London apartment. Given that it was a touring production, the furnishings weren’t lavish, but then there was a war on, so that fitted. The main door was centre back, there was another door off to the left (study), a window on the right, a piano on the left wall and a sofa and chairs with the necessary tables. The final act was in a small upper flat in a rundown part of London; doors off left, right and in the centre, the piano on the left wall, a small table and two chairs left of centre, and a small desk with the telephone and a typewriter front right. The ceiling was missing, and we could see the outline of a bombed building behind, and with that, the searchlights, and the smoke which invaded the living room, I was momentarily distracted by the idea that the house we were looking at had itself been bombed and was missing a chunk of the roof. Sara Crowe kept going through the mist, and we didn’t miss anything, but it was a weird moment.

The plot was based on Hamlet. Rattigan had been challenged on how he would handle the situation Hamlet finds himself in, and this play was his response. The connection isn’t just obvious, it’s frequently commented on by the characters in the play, and we enjoyed the humour of the parallels. It’s just a shame The Mousetrap hadn’t opened at this time, as it would have been even funnier if Michael had bought tickets for that instead of Death In The Family, or whatever it was. There was also a passing reference to the Lunts as dinner guests, although whether that was in the original or added for this production I don’t know.

This version of the story concentrates more on the Gertrude character, Olivia, as she negotiates her way through the return of her son from Canada, where he’d been sent to school for safety on the outbreak of war, and her relationship with a very prominent Cabinet Minister, Sir John Fletcher, who’s in charge of tank production. Her son, Michael, knows nothing of her relationship with the Cabinet Minister; his father died while he was away in Canada, and his mother has mentioned Sir John in her letters, but as a good friend, nothing more.

The play begins with Olivia arranging the guests for a dinner party. Her devious cunning is revealed early on, as she tells two reluctant invitees that the other is dying to meet them. Then we meet Sir John as he returns from work, and the arrival of her son is discussed. Sir John agrees to stay away for a day or so until she can bring Michael up to speed; Sir John favours the forthright approach, while Mummy still thinks her little boy – who may be seventeen(?), she can’t really remember – won’t be able to handle such difficult news.

And in a way, she’s right. Arriving earlier than expected, the objectionable little prig who turns up appears to have no sense of the world and sadly no sense of humour either. Michael has become indoctrinated in the new left wing attitude to everything – not communist as such, but still convinced that the order will be swept away once Herr Hitler has been beaten. Capitalism is dead, long live the revolution, that sort of thing. He’s appalled to find out that his mother’s taken up with a class enemy, a rampant capitalist, and is living the high life off her ‘immoral’ earnings. He argues with Sir John, and despite his warning about the ‘closet scene’, persuades his mother to leave Sir John and move back to respectable poverty.

So to the final scene in the flat. The relationship between mother and son is still fine, despite their lack of money, her unhappiness with their lifestyle and his insistence on reading ‘improving’ literature. We soon find out that Michael has a girlfriend, and when he heads out to spend the evening with her, Sir John turns up to try and win Olivia back. When Michael and his girlfriend arrive unexpectedly, Sir John hides in the next room while Olivia goes off for a bath, and the ensuing revelations lead to a satisfactory outcome for all concerned.

The play isn’t Rattigan’s best, but it’s still an enjoyable evening at the theatre. Naturally it’s a bit dated, and I reckon the changing attitudes between then and now may account for Sir John seeming more sympathetic to us now, banking crisis notwithstanding. The left-wing ideas which were taking hold at that time seem naïve and unrealistic today, though that may just be hindsight. The references to Hamlet were very funny, especially when Sir John had a little tirade about Michael’s behaviour, wearing a black tie and looking all mournful. He was too, wearing a big floppy black tie, which made us laugh. There was plenty of humour all round to keep us happy, and while I felt the audience didn’t respond as much as they could, the cast did a very good job and I wish them well on tour.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

One comment on “Less Than Kind – February 2012

  1. Peter Serres says:

    May 2013 – a second touring version at the Theatre Royal, Brighton: Sue Holderness & William Gaminara as Olivia and Sir John. Polton, the maid, was the same as in 2011/2012. I’d give it 7 , though the play has it weaknesses/implausibilities.

    Re: MOUSETRAP which I too was half-expecting – Michael DID say that Death In The Family was running at the St Martins Theatre (laughter of recognition).

    I take it as a satire of circumstance that the actor playing Michael was called Hamblett.

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