FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Paul Miller for the Orange Tree, designed by Simon Daw, lit by Mark Doubleday, with Elizabeth Purnell’s deft composition and sound enveloping 1940s hits. Till July 27th.
We see what the butler saw on his face. John Hudson’s Horton returns from the bedroom of Bobby, Earl of Harpenden looking constipated. Philip Labey’s boyish Harpenden emerges with a man he found thrown out of a nightclub: beefcake Bombardier Lieutenant Joe Mulvaney USAF, the towering Julian Moore-Cook (he’s meant to loom over all, and certainly does).
‘My friends usually call me Bobby’ Harpenden charms Joe who’s shocked with who his host is. And adds: ‘Last night you called me Dulcie.’ Joe wastes no time on borrowing Harpenden’s phone: ‘I slept in the same bed as an earl…. No, not a girl, stupid, an earl.’ Delicious frissons ripple just under this nominally hetero-normal play.
Terence Rattigan’s greatest hit the 1943 While the Sun Shines has languished whilst his other finest comedy French Without Tears flourishes – most recently also (as here) directed by Paul Miller for the Orange Tree before a tour. Making hay with this play proves thornier.
Harpenden’s engaged to Sabrina Bartlett’s Lady Elizabeth Randall, a lowly WAAF corporal, recently demoted for losing a plan in a toilet. Her father the Duke is delighted – a gambler with hare-brained schemes he needs Harpenden’s money. Like Elizabeth, Harpenden’s a ranker: an Ordinary Seaman to Joe’s incomprehension. Meritocracy means these smart but incompetent aristos are outranked by guests: Joe himself, Elizabeth’s Duke father, a general. And Horton’s brother is a lieutenant-commander. Horton’s American-born too but still eases on Harpenden’s boots for him, Joe gaping.
Indeed Rattigan’s aristos feel they’re about to become extinct – Harpenden’s worth two million and has two estates, but Beveridge and Bevan sit in the wings. Despite the froth there’s a whiff of After the Dance, Rattigan’s pre-war play: society’s in flux, more state-of-the-nation than estate-nation.
But can Rattigan hold to the democratic force of his logic when it comes to relationships? Elizabeth’s being trailed by French suitor-met-on-a-train Colbert (Jordan Mifsud) who denounces her convenient marriage in the face of his ‘white-hot’ passion, and Joe mistakes Elizabeth for the ‘trollop’ Mabel Crum, Harpenden’s soon-to-be-ex-mistress (the magnificent Dorothea Myer-Bennett) whom Harpenden blithely calls up to entertain Joe any way she likes.
So when Joe mistakes Elizabeth for Mabel, calling her ‘Babe’ and threatening to ‘put you over my knee and spank the life out of you’ the polite Elizabeth is simply bemused then befuddled with whisky then rather thrilled. When Mabel finally turns up Joe’s spoken for, and a whirl of reassessments start. There’s wonderful set-scenes with the second and third acts ending in a crap-game to decide who’ll do what with whom, and Michael Lumsden’s outraged then crap-shooting Duke joining in. Women as chattels, men disposed of in a game, one woman who out-games them all. You can hear society’s gear-change screeching in a Jeep.
Brilliantly constructed like a farce but subverting the genre, it ought to be up there with the ten best Rattigans. It needs Miller’s production and outstanding cast to persuade us though – and the Orange Tree’s in-the-round intimacy helps more than prosc-arch. We’re eavesdropping on Rattigan’s own rooms at the Albany, where it’s set.
So well-designed by Simon Daw is it that eavesdropping’s more like voyeurism. From chandeliers and plaster rose dangled over the living room with carpet and radiogram, there’s a perfect triangle for actors to move about – no sitting for long, or over-exposure to a back of a head. A set of bedroom mahogany doors opposes an off-stage kitchen where (nod to farce) characters are banished.
The coup though is a set of shuttered windows Horton opens in yet another corner, beautifully lit by Mark Doubleday. Elizabeth Purnell’s deft composition and sound enveloping 1940s hits completes the best staging this work could ask for.
So why after such an effervescent romp does it still nag with disagreeables? Rattigan gently subverts the hetero-normative, deliciously pointed-up. So does the way he allows characters to slide into themselves: the gambling Duke, Joe’s all-Ohio-blazing to bed Elizabeth – like Charles Marlow with Kate Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer – before he realizes she’s a Lady; just this side dangerous. Harpenden tells Mabel he loves her too ‘but in a different way’ and it’s up to Mabel to resolve everything after confusions, proposals, contra-proposals, break-offs and re-connections.
I’m not sure we should want what Rattigan cleverly prepares; it suggests despite his deftness some characters mightn’t realize themselves. Perhaps one character overbore Rattigan, and he listened.
Myer-Bennett with her purring contralto has the presence and comic sublimity to sound the play’s slight moral weight. Her love for hapless Harpenden is unselfish, indeed hugely generous. At the start he’s about to cast her off with a fat cheque: she appreciates it but can refuse more. She takes advantage of the Duke to advance herself but is radiant too with self-knowledge. She also stage-manages a set-piece between two characters. Myer-Bennett persuades us Rattigan’s given her a life beyond the play and it seems unfair to confine her to it.
Fortunately the whole ensemble invests such energy this doesn’t unbalance the last act in particular. Labey’s Harpenden manages insouciance with the charm of never being refused except by the officer selection panel; rejection manifests as a flinch of surprise. Bartlett takes exactly the right time to get drunk with two glasses of straight whisky, with melting wide-eyed wonder; at other times warmth and sexual awakening. She’s an admirable foil to Myer-Bennett and the two enjoy a touching scene.
Moore-Cook’s meat-headed but smart Joe points up an awed nobility, leavened with rough levelling when riled. Mifsud’s more sketchily realized Colbert completes the allied entente in bed together, but makes the most of Rattigan’s remorseless French-with-tears amatory logic, with the Duke revisiting the mauled French of Rattigan’s first hit. Hudson’s unflappable foil to everything encompasses Lumsden’s Blimpish Duke who teeters on absurdity but pulls back with an admirable grasp of how to grasp at fortune.
With two intervals two-hours-forty-five might seem long, but it really isn’t. It’s an outstanding revival and whatever question-marks shadow this work, it won’t receive another like this for a very long time.