THEATRE: Gripped by the English vice

In Praise of Love Apollo, London
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"Do you know what `Le Vice Anglais' - the English vice - really is? Not flagellation, not pederasty - whatever the French believe it to be. It's our refusal to admit to our emotions. We think they demean us, I suppose." The sentiments could have come straight out of Look Back in Anger or any of the other works through which John Osborne and his like strove to give the English "Lessons in feeling". The irony, though, is that this speech appears in In Praise of Love, a late play by Terence Rattigan who was the bte noire of the angry brigade. Revived now by Richard Olivier, it demonstrates that Rattigan is not so much the victim of English repression as one of its most skilled anatomists.

The play was partly prompted by the sad case of Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall. She was dying of leukaemia, a fact both of them knew but neither admitted. Rattigan makes the wife an Estonian refugee and furnishes the couple with a rich American friend (Ray Lonnen) who has less difficulty than the husband in acknowledging the depth of his love for the dying woman. The play thus throws into relief the husband's constrained Englishness.

Sebastian is a literary journalist whose Tory manner does not stop him from entertaining the delusion that he is still a Marxist. Naturally equipped to convey impeccable Englishness, Peter Bowles captures well the crusty self-preoccupation of the man, though he signals too early that the insensitivity has become deliberate: Sebastian tries to protect his wife from the knowledge of her condition by remaining unbudgeably fixed in his old persona. It's a painfully ironic plight. If he never quite persuades you of a powerful intellect, Bowles admirably resists sentimentality.

Lydia, the wife, is dying of an illness that afflicts those who suffered malnutrition in childhood. Odd, then, that in this production she should be taller than her 20-year-old son (Christien Anholt). That apart, Lisa Harrow is extraordinarily good in the role and not just because the bone structure of her face is plausibly Slavic.In modern American drama, you get the impression that there's no family problem so great that a little terminal illness couldn't cure it; we're used to sickly uplift. But as Harrow's performance beautifully shows, Lydia is moving because Rattigan refuses to milk her predicament. You wait for the big revelation scene, the routine hosing-down with tear-gas, and it never happens.

At several points in the play, Sebastian expresses irritation that Shakespeare could have been a "bloody old honours-touting bourgeois" and yet write so well. The case of Rattigan shows that it's also possible to be an upper- class playboy and no mean author.

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Paul Taylor