Fringe Online 2020
Directed by Cat Robey for Jermyn Street’s JST BraveNewWorld season it features Louie Whitemore the Jermyn Street Associate Director who introduces designers Tamsin Robinson and Caitlin Mawhinnney. Till June 2nd.
In Praise of Love from 1973 is an exquisite underrated masterpiece, one of Terence Rattigan’s finest late works. This penultimate play marks a return not just to form but from abroad where as his companion, director Adrian Brown remarked, Rattigan sulked for nearly a decade after falling from fashion.
Ably directed by Cat Robey, this is the second of Jermyn Street‘s superb JST BraveNewWorld productions after the success of The Skin Game last week. Nominally a rehearsed reading forget it: this is theatre.
What’s notable for one thing is how exilic Rattigan so grasped 1970s Britain, replete with a Marxist theatre critic and mere liberal ‘collaborator’ son; the cast’s core couple particularly immerse themselves in the period.
Lydia’s dying. Husband Sebastian knows her diagnosis but refuses to let on, family friend and American novelist Mark gets called over by Lydia for a rather surprising diagnosis of her own. It helps she was in the Estonian resistance – and this play’s references draw in the world in spinning references.
Mark’s now confederate: misunderstanding heightens. How long can their pretences continue before each character’s unspoken emotion is fully expressed? How Rattigan, but here for the most deftly plotted reasons, builds to a great confessional.
In Praise of Love ranges from tender through funny through smiling at grief: there’s a little world here made cunningly. Though loosely inspired by the relationship between actors Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall (dying but didn’t know it), Rattigan’s characters are complex, more evenly matched in secrets: the couple are both trained spies – it’s how Marxist Sebastian met Lydia when a young officer; and managed to get her out from behind the Iron Curtain through the legal channel of marriage. But do they know so much about each other? Do they know what the other really feels? There’s an exquisite balance of tragedy and laughter.
Issy Van Randwyck’s the stricken Lydia, married to Jack Klaff’s curmudgeonly ex-novelist turned critic Sebastian, Andrew Francis’s their friend Mark who like Lydia admires Sebastian’s novels unreservedly; and MacKenzie Heynes as their son Joey. Who’s about to have a premiere of his own on BBC2, but canvasses for the Liberals. What a swell party this is turning out. Father and son are both idealists – perhaps they’re not so far apart. Lydia and Mark though carry Rattigan’s humanist values. Overtly.
Van Randwyck’s dignified increasingly powerful Lydia belies her mumsy hostess hinting at what the past’s wrought as she opens to Mark several truths about herself – and each other. Heynes catches the young idealist with warmth and conviction. Francis makes a fine interlocutor and confessional.
Joey’s ‘play’ we hear is fleetingly is one of those daft Kafkaesque parables. The only trouble is that the great critic’s missing and Lydia and Mark create an elaborate face-saver, even phoning the woman she hopes might replace her, except Sebastian’s not in on it. And he has a reason too.
Klaff – only recently at Jermyn Street in Gail Louw’s enthralling The Ice Cream Boys – is compellingly under the skin of this craggy tetchy character who keeps his feelings hidden like depth-charges: it’s a performance of stature.
The gripping scene between Sebastian and Mark as Sebastian relates Lydia’s wartime ordeal – which has consequences and a physical fall-out – is one of Rattigan’s masterstrokes. As each scene unskeins the implications the work resolves with a clinching in-character rapprochement.
Everyone’s playing from their homes and there’s some commendable library backdrops, even a set of steps as well as a hatbox, with some neat transitions.
We get a strong hint of design too. Jermyn Street Associate Designer Louie Whitemore introduces two graduate students with Jermyn Street, and you should really keep with this if you’ve watched the video. It takes just three minutes and is unmissable if you care for theatre – it’s a behind-the-scenes look. Set and costume designer Tamsin Robinson who worked with the overall set design in a naturalist mode and with the clothes of each (witty and adroit all round),; and Caitlin Mawhinnney – who presented after the show a wondrous image of the designing – a large purpled white image as backdrop to features in the disease Lydia’s suffering from which extends to her dress: the kind of symbolist set you might see at the Dorfman as well as here.
There’s a lost Rattigan decade between 1963’s Man and Boy and this play. One rescue might be the remarkable Heart to Heart a fine full-length TV play of 1962 starring Kenneth More, a drama loosely based around Alan Freeman’s Face to Face of the period. That should have been brought to theatre years ago.
As it is, this play’s subtleties and close-quarters confrontations lead to a work particularly suited to to a Zoom production. It works better in sheerly theatrical terms too, than Rattigan’s final Cause Celebre, adapted from the radio, that premiered in 1977 just before he died.
Francis and Heynes make a strong showing her and Van Ranwyck in Lydia’s meatier role is believable, touching and brings warmth to tragic realisations. Klaff, given the great curmudgeon spot is terrific: emotional, skirling, confiding dismissive and blistering in self-knowledge. There’s no reason not to see this rare gem – and where possible, support Jermyn Street.