FringeReview UK 2021
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. Emma Woodvine is Voice and Dialect Coach, Yarit Dor Intimacy Director, Casting Consultant Vicky Richardson.
Production Manager Stuart Burgess, Deputy Production Manager Lisa Hood, CSM Jenny Skivens, DSM Julia Crammer, ASMs Rosie Tredray, Rhea Jacques, Costume Supervisor Isabella Van Braeckel, Production LX Chris McDonnell, Production Photographer Ali Wright. Programme Design and Editor Ben Clare.
Till January 15th.
A fine actor from the Orange Tree Outside Festival asked me how reviews could be up when this was press night. I explained. In June 2019 I wrote of Paul Miller’s revival of Rattigan’s While the Sun Shines: ‘It’s an outstanding revival and whatever question-marks shadow this work, it won’t receive another like this for a very long time.’ Well it just has – this revival of a revival really is worth seeing twice.
We see what the butler saw on his face (and Rattigan adored Orton!). John Hudson’s Horton returns from the bedroom of Bobby, Earl of Harpenden looking constipated. Philip Labey’s slight, boyish Harpenden emerges with a man he found thrown out of a nightclub: beefcake Bombardier Lieutenant Joe Mulvaney USAF, the towering Conor Glean (he’s meant to loom over all, and certainly does). Both Hudson and Labey return from the 2019 revival with two others, and there’s a feeling of even deeper engagement.
‘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 heteronormative 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 directed by Paul Miller for the Orange Tree before a tour. Making hay with this play proves a bit thornier thematically, but second time round it’s somehow all hay.
Harpenden’s engaged to Rebecca Collingwood’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 blimpish compulsive-gambler 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, also returning) who denounces her convenient marriage in the face of his ‘white-hot’ passion, and Joe mistakes Elizabeth for the ‘trollop’ Mabel Crum (I flinched too), Harpenden’s soon-to-be-ex-mistress. This is the suave Sophie Khan Levy 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 (also returning) 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. Originally I felt it needed Miller’s production and outstanding cast to persuade us though – and the Orange Tree’s in-the-round intimacy helps more than pros-arch. We’re eavesdropping on Rattigan’s own rooms at the Albany, where it’s set. Cancel that. Nothing will beat the Orange Tree but this play absolutely jumps up on its feet.
So well-designed by Simon Daw is it that eavesdropping’s more like voyeurism (for returnees this time round it’s set at 90 degrees to its original position). 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 snag with disagreeables? Certainly not because Rattigan gently subverts the heteronormative, deliciously pointed-up. When Harpenden tells his American guest: ‘You’d better get dressed, unless you want to receive Mabel Crum in your negligée’ he takes this more than a titter over the transgressive. As dramatist and Rattigan scholar Dan Rebellato points out, war was sexual liberation and Rattigan had a very, very good war.
It’s in the way Rattigan allows characters to slide back 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 realises 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.
Should we want what Rattigan cleverly prepares? It suggests despite his deftness some characters mightn’t realise themselves. Perhaps one character overbore Rattigan, and he listened. I’m more reconciled now and it is comical farce where this outcome is something of a convention.
Khan Levy with her quizzical elegance has the presence and on occasion 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. Khan Levy persuades us Rattigan’s given Mabel Crum 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.
Collingwood 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. Her dance solo after Mulvaney realises his terrible error is gloriously uninhibited and a little heartbreaking. She’s an admirable foil to Khan Levy and the two enjoy a touching scene.
Glean’s occasionally meat-headed but smart Joe Mulvaney points up an awed nobility, leavened with rough levelling when riled. Despite square-up moments Glean conveys Mulvaney’s shining decency, his warmth towards Harpenden, and a just-contained roar.
Mifsud’s dug even more deeply than 2019 into the more sketchily realized Colbert who completes the allied entente in bed together. Now he matches Glean’s Mulvaney in presence and certainly 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 – with elegant asides about his bad Met Opera singer father pulled off like a serving-dish – encompasses all with a degree of his ‘look’ as he terms it.
Lumsden’s uber-Blimpish Duke of Ayr & Stirling mixes the energy of the entitled with the desperation of a gambler; the hauteur of class marriage with the sudden realisation of how the opposite could work just as well. A natural survivor, Lumsden’s Duke teeters on absurdity but pulls back with an admirable grasp of how to grasp at fortune.
Originally there were two intervals running at two-hours-forty-five but with just one late on now totalling two hours thirty (a bit longer than predicted) it works perfectly well and may swiftly shorten in the run. And it’s not just because this is November and not June, or that we’re coming out of a long dark shelter from airborne peril. This fresh revival stamps Rattigan’s hybrid as a masterpiece, Rattigan’s second and final great comedy, admixed with his one-off use of farce. It should re-establish While the Sun Shines at least in the corner of period classics. Outstanding in every way.