In Praise of Love, Royal & Derngate, Northampton

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The Independent Culture

I was intrigued to see this Terence Rattigan play in his centenary year, and not only because, after its 1973 premiere (when it was paired with an even more excruciating item, Before Dawn, a farcical spoof of Tosca), I received a first edition from the playwright himself congratulating me on writing the best stinker he'd had since James Agate's for French without Tears – "without – well – prejudice."

It has become critical orthodoxy, and not just during the current Terry love-in, to describe In Praise of Love as a late masterpiece or at least, as the programme has it, "a play of secrets... where the revelations are unusually graceful, complex and filled with emotion."

Lydia Cruttwell, an Estonian refugee, has been diagnosed with a terminal arthritic disease, and her obnoxious husband, Sebastian, a literary critic and old-fashioned Marxist is pretending he doesn't know anything about it.

Rattigan referred to the Liberal Party revival of the early 1970s in the even more unlikely figure of this couple's son, who approximates to his idea of "today's generation" in floppy hair and a leather jacket (no one under 50 voted Liberal in those days) who's also having a play of his broadcast on BBC2, on a weekday, against football on BBC1, "Match of the Week" (another figment of Rattigan's imagination).

The play, which Rattigan extended after the premiere, dropping the Tosca nonsense, hinges on two events: Lydia's medical death sentence and Joey's play, which Sebastian misses in a cloud of excuses that may or may not involve dallying with his editor in Fleet Street, or with his girlfriend in the West End.

And here's another crack in the ceiling: Lydia not only knows about this affair, but tolerates it, and even has the woman's phone number; devotion is continuously redefined for the convenience of the plot.

To 23 April (01604 624811)

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