THEATRE / Three cheers for tolerance: Paul Taylor reviews Peter Hall's revival of Separate Tables

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The Independent Culture
AFTER those ugly shouts of approval at the opening night of Oleanna, when the demonic female student finally provoked her professor to violence, it made a pleasant change at the premiere of Peter Hall's fine revival of Separate Tables at the Albery to hear cheers for something decent and humane. This happened towards the end of the second in Rattigan's double bill of plays set at a Bournemouth hotel, at the point where the bigoted presiding battleaxe (superlatively played by Rosemary Leach) is suddenly defied by the other residents in her campaign to eject from their midst the pathetic Major who has been caught touching up women in a local cinema. From the applause that greeted the collapse of that stout and prejudiced party, Rattigan's plea for tolerance had evidently worked.

Not that the drama ends on a note of vibrant optimism. One of its estimable features is that Rattigan reverses what might, from some angles, have seemed the more natural ordering of the works. In the first play, a long- divorced couple meet again at the hotel and are compelled to confront the fact that though they are a disaster together, it's a more lingering and cruel form of death to be apart. Their joint future may look precarious and liable to end like the relationship in The Deep Blue Sea, Rattigan's best study of incompatible types of love. But there is at least an underlying passion here to the recommitment they eventually make to each other.

By choosing, though, to end the evening with the second play's much more tentative conclusion, Rattigan puts the final focus on the small but deep moral victories achieved by a pair of misfits who aren't cut out to give a play a remotely romantic curtain. Exposed as a fraud, the Major drops his facade and bravely starts trying to live with his fellow guests as himself, while for the first time the dowdy, grotesquely repressed daughter of the battleaxe finds the courage to make a tiny stand against this possessive, domineering matriarch. The triumph is one of humanity over prejudice and subjugation and Rattigan was right to see this as more theatrically potent than the reassertion of passion in the first play. You feel its glow without having to fool yourself that the mutually understanding Major and frump could possibly have a life together.

The two leading actors are given different roles in each play. Expertly showing the panic under the Major's brash, pukka disguise, Peter Bowles is first seen cutting an impressively haunted figure as the shambling, heavy-drinking, left-wing journalist. In this earlier work, Patricia Hodge is the epitome of elegant despair, but her beauty is a touch too unflawed to make the model's distress over ageing look very plausible. Only the cheekbones give her away, though, in her startling metamorphosis as a violently plain, cowed hysteric in the later play.

The wall at the back of Carl Toms's revolving lounge and dining-room set is emblazoned with a huge fading Union Jack design, which will certainly help those who may otherwise have thought we were in Baghdad rather than Bournemouth. A touch heavy-handedly, this patriotic pattern and the intermittent strains of 'Jerusalem' are there to remind us of the post- imperial twilight in which Hall's excellent cast are coming to terms with their loneliness. For those with the 'character' for it, self-sufficiency, not intimacy, seems to be the ideal in Rattigan's world. All blinked- back tears and breezy businesslike manner, Charlotte Cornwell's excellent manageress shows you a woman who's achieved it the hard way, acquiring (somewhat conveniently for the play) admirable reserves of sensitivity and compassion en route. A fine appeal for tolerance but no big advertisement for communal dining, Separate Tables makes you see room service as a great humanitarian advance.

Box office: 071-867 1115

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