The Deep Blue Sea, Festival Theatre, Chichester
Rattigan's Nijinsky, Festival Theatre, Chichester
This Happy Breed, Theatre Royal, Bath
Rattigan takes the lid off a fragile marriage and dabbles with the Ballets Russes, but it's Noël Coward who scores a hit
Sunday 31 July 2011
If we've not yet reached the high point of centenary productions celebrating Terence Rattigan (1911-77), could this Chichester double bill be the acme?
It sounds enticing enough: Sir Terence's 1952 classic, The Deep Blue, plus Rattigan'sNijinsky, a specially commissioned biodrama by Nicholas Wright which envisages the upper-crust, closet-gay dramatist's last days and incorporates scenes from a long-lost Rattigan screenplay.
Directed by Philip Franks, The Deep Blue Sea certainly has heartbreaking moments, with Amanda Root playing Hester Collyer, the suicidally unhappy heroine who struggles to put on a brave face. She has radically left her establishment husband, Sir William (Anthony Calf), for a young buck called Freddie (John Hopkins). She seems incurably infatuated with the latter, an ex-RAF pilot who's turning to drink.
The boarding house where these two have shacked up encapsulates that sinking feeling, the blues. Indeed, it's almost as if Root's Hester is slowly drowning in sorrow, as she sits staring at the unlit gas fire in their spartan sitting-room – its once azure wallpaper now dingy (set design by Mike Britton). Root is unforgettably heartbreaking when she crumples in quiet despair in the half-light, as Freddie vanishes down the stairwell after a row, or when she buries her face, at the end, in a favourite old jumper that he has left behind.
As played by Hopkins, Freddie is vibrantly loving at first, embracing and kissing Root with a strapping, amorous affection. This makes their split the sadder, and it strikingly underlines the possibility that – as Freddie claims – Hester is over-dramatising when she complains that her feelings have never been requited. Perhaps she scuppers her own happiness, though Freddie does later confess he's been a cad. Meanwhile, Calf is a moving Sir William, turning up in a pinstriped suit and bowler hat but revealing depths of tenderness, rather than a stiff upper lip.
Hester's fellow lodgers give less finessed performances, particularly Joseph Drake and Faye Castelow as an irritating young couple, the Welches. Drake seems to be auditioning for the role of human foghorn, and the tiresomely shrill Castelow just makes your eyes water.
Alas, the pair are not much better reincarnated as the legendary ballet star Vaslav Nijinsky and his bride-to-be, Romola. In Rattigan's Nijinsky, we gather that, as an avid fan and heiress, Romola schemed to lure Nijinsky from his love affair with the groundbreaking impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The dancer's whirlwind romance with her destroyed the two men's artistic collaboration too, soon after Stravinsky's riot-sparking Rite of Spring, sensationally choreographed by Nijinsky in 1913.
Frankly, these episodes are not electrifying, recreated from a BBC TV script penned by Rattigan but then shelved. An overlooked masterpiece? Not judging by the snippets seen here, even if Jonathan Hyde, as Diaghilev, manages to be enjoyably dry and flamboyant. While seeming devastated by Nijinsky's bisexual flightiness, he might be cunningly exaggerating, and, in fact, be commercially glad to sack him.
Rattigan's Nijinsky definitely isn't Wright's greatest work, with too many spelled-out parallels. All the Ballets Russes business is rather clumsily yoked to scenes where we see Rattigan (Malcolm Sinclair), still debonair though dying, swigging medicine and being eyed by a flirtatious bellboy in his grand suit at Claridge's. The medicine means Sinclair can receive hallucinatory visits from Nijinsky and co, as well as from a BBC producer, from the aged, litigious Romola, who denies Nijinsky's homosexuality, and from Rattigan's mater. Her conservatism may have ultimately caused her son to self-censor his script. The piece doesn't serve Rattigan well. Roll on Chichester's second double bill in September: The Browning Version plus a new play by David Hare.
I was far more intrigued to see This Happy Breed, a rarely aired Noël Coward, first staged in 1942 and a far cry from his high-society comedies with their plummy, soigné types. Spanning two decades from the end of the First World War to the start of the second, this tragicomedy is set in a family home in south London – close to Coward's lower-middle-class roots. Act One, in fact, looks startlingly like a radical forerunner of the Royal Court's Angry Young Men phase and Arnold Wesker's Chicken Soup with Barley. The fired-up, youthful Reg Gibbons (Matthew Spencer) and his two sisters, Vi and Queenie, listen at their dining table to an impassioned Marxist speech by Reg's best friend. The lads' radical politics will lead, at the height of the General Strike in 1931, to a rift with Reg's father, Frank.
But Frank is no dyed-in-the-wool conservative; he's more tolerant than his wife of the unconventional private life of Queenie, a social-climbing material girl who scorns "common" suburbia. What's complex is the way in which Coward's sympathies shift. Queenie may be a coded self-portrait but she's also satirised.
There's some caricatured acting in Stephen Unwin's revival for the Peter Hall Company, and the play takes a risibly cloying, patriotic turn at the end. Yet elsewhere, Dean Lennox Kelly's salt-of-the earth Frank is wonderfully lived-in and naturalistic, with a drunk scene that's cryingly funny. All in all, the combination of political upheavals, domestic intimacy, and enduring love is richly rewarding.
'The Deep Blue Sea' and 'Rattigan's Nijinsky' (01243-781312) in rep to 3 Sep; 'This Happy Breed' (01225-448844) to 13 Aug
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