Although written in 1944, this Terence Rattigan play first premiered with its original text only a couple of years ago. This was because “an accident of wartime” had resulted in the only remaining copy being hidden away for years among the Lord Chamberlain’s Office papers. The National Theatre had had great success with Rattigan’s After The Dance, and then this one was punted out on the wave of hype surrounding his centenary in 2011. It too was a success, and on tonight’s showing deservedly so.
A simple plot, quite possibly pinched from Hamlet: set at the time of writing, a teenage boy, Michael, returns from evacuation in Canada to discover that his widowed mother, Olivia Brown, is having a discrete affair with a married senior Cabinet Minister, Sir John Fletcher. There’s a war on, and not just in the living room. Fletcher is a millionaire industrialist, a market man, a steel magnate charged with making more tanks than Germany prior to D-Day. Politically on the left, Michael Brown has floated back on the rising tide of socialism (Watch out, Mr Churchill!) and is full of progressive political ideals culled from Labour Party tracts. He hates Sir John and all he stands for, even before meeting him; cue conflict and lots of opportunities for observational humour. John wants to finish off his munitions task and leave the government, then divorce his wife and marry Olivia. However, Michael proves to be a more difficult problem for John than the tanks. Michael makes his Mum promise to leave John and they return to penury together in her dead dentist husband’s rooms in Barons Court.
The principals circumscribe a neatly constructed triangle, which Rattigan observes with a text of wit and touching compassion. It’s a domestic drama, a social commentary and a political piece all rolled into one highly evocative production, and nicely teased out by the excellent Sue Holderness (Olivia), William Gaminra (John), Charlie Hamblett (Michael) and a slick supporting cast. As you might expect from the Playhouse, the period feel which is embedded in the text is improved by the set, the music, and the occasional air raid sirens. Adrian Brown deserves warm praise for bringing this lost play to our attention.