Rattle of a Simple Man, Comedy Theatre, London
Monday 17 May 2004
The programme notes for
Rattle of a Simple Man quote Philip Larkin's poem "Annus Mirabilis" - "Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three / (Which was rather late for me)..."
The programme notes for Rattle of a Simple Man quote Philip Larkin's poem "Annus Mirabilis" - "Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three / (Which was rather late for me)..." Larkin's sardonic celebration of the permissive society is painfully apposite for a play that was written in 1962 and has as one of its main characters a 42-year-old man, Percy, who has never had sex.
But it is a mistake to regard Charles Dyer's comedy as a period-piece, some sort of fanfare for the Sixties: sexual insecurity, Percy's sense of being left out of a game that everyone else knows how to play, is a human emotion, and one that popular culture deals with all too rarely.
For that reason, and because the play's heart is so squarely in the right place, I wished I could like this revival. Given that it is directed by John Caird, and features stars of the magnitude of Stephen Tompkinson and Michelle Collins, you would not imagine that there could be much difficulty finding nice things to say. But the truth is that their collective talents are wasted on a script devoid of believable characterisation or dramatic logic.
Percy (Tompkinson) is a middle-ranking technician at a Manchester cotton-mill. On his annual outing to London to watch a football match, drunk and egged on by his mates, he goes off with Cyrenne (Collins), a self-assured prostitute.
Back at her flat, his braggadocio dissolves, and they are soon drinking tea while he admits feelings of inadequacy. Cyrenne, meanwhile, dazzles him with stories of her wealthy upbringing and sophisticated acquaintances. Every so often she is irritated by some imagined slight and makes to throw him out, or he is overcome by anxiety and puts on his coat; but for one reason or another - none of them very convincing - he never quite leaves.
Aside from this, the only source of tension is the revelation that - brace yourself - Cyrenne is not all she seems. The inaction limps on, only broken by the arrival of Cyrenne's brother: Percy is bundled out of the room, and Cyrenne is free to explain that she is a working-class girl who turned to prostitution after being sexually abused by her stepfather.
Tompkinson is, as you would expect, capable and sympathetic, and I dare say he makes Percy as believable as anybody could. Collins, in her West End debut, is credible and has unaccustomed warmth, but no humour. It occurred to me that a more naturally funny actress could have carried the play off; but the plot is so ramshackle, stagecraft so conspicuously absent, that that seems unlikely.
I liked Nick Fletcher's London-Greek accent as the brother, but the part is fake. The main emotion this induced in me was bafflement: given the combined bankability of director and stars, surely they could have picked any play they wanted - so why this? Less a comedy than a mystery.
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