The Art of Concealment, Jermyn Street Theatre, London 

4.00

 

Jermyn Street Theatre, which has just deservedly won The Stage's  Fringe Theatre of the Year Award, kicked off 2011 with Less Than Kind, a fascinating, hitherto unperformed draft of an early play by Terence Rattigan.

The venue now ushers in 2012 with The Art of Concealment, Giles Cole's richly insightful and deeply entertaining bio-drama which views the career of this playwright -- the most spectacular casuality of the mid-fifties Royal Court revolution -- from the opposite end of the temporal spectrum.  Pushing sixty-six and dying of leukemia, Alistair Findlay's moving Older Terry is seen anxiously waiting for the curtain to rise on what he knows will be his last play, Cause Celebre (1977).  This predicament prompts memories of earlier First Nights.  Acting as our guide, the ailing, gay dramatist looks back -- not in Osborne-like anger but with a wry, perplexed ruefulness -- on the progress (and otherwise) of his younger self, played here by the dashing, debonair Dominic Tighe who projects perfectly the strain of having to maintain the pretence of being theatreland's 'most eligible bachelor' and the chilly reserve behind the bonhomie that comes from the kind of privilege that allows ruthless compartmentalisation of one's life.

Defty directed by Knight Mantell, the show packs in an incredible amount of material.  It takes us from Rattigan the uppish Harrow sixth-former fending off the philistine demands of the disgraced diplomat father, who wants him to pursue the Establishment success that eluded him, to the paranoid, whisky-guzzling Rattigan of the later years, firing off futile late-night riposted to his chief critical tormentor, Kenneth Tynan.  And the piece is acute about how the plays --  coded not just because homosexuality was criminal but because of a reticent obliquity in Rattigan's nature -- and the life illuminate each other.  There's an extraordinarily powerful sequence where the younger Rattigan reads from the part of Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version so that his actor-lover, the troubled Kenneth Morgan (excellent Daniel Bayle) can audition for the role of Taplow, the pupil who unmans the dried-up school master with a sudden act of kindness.  In the unfeigned tearful breakdown of Rattigan, you see the desperately sad affinities between the playboy dramatist and the emotional sterility of his very different protagonist.  And in the calculated public humiliation of Kenneth, who is forced to perform before two bitchy, jealous male courtiers, you keenly appreciate the inequalities in a relationship where the loved one was continually required to shove off like a guilty secret before daybreak.

There is also the smart idea of confronting Rattigan with Aunt Edna (a comically brisk Judy Buxton) who was the journalistic personification of the middle-class, middle-brow audience he felt had deserted him.  She has several bits of unexpected news for him here.  But then, even for seasoned Rattigan buffs, The Art of Concealment will spring suggestive revelations.

To January 28

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