BWW Review: LOVE IN IDLENESS, Menier Chocolate Factory
In 1944, Terence Rattigan substantially revised Less Than Kind at the behest of star theatrical couple the Lunts; the result was the less political, more overtly comic play Love in Idleness. Now, Trevor Nunn, inspired by Dan Rebellato's introduction in a Nick Hern Books edition of the two versions, has synthesised them - to intriguing and largely successful effect.Widow Olivia Brown is in a relationship with the married Sir John Fletcher, a wealthy industrialist and wartime cabinet minister responsible for tank production. He's unable to divorce without causing a scandal, but theirs is essentially a happy arrangement. It's threatened by the return of Olivia's evacuated teenage son Michael, who's become a socialist firebrand during his time in Canada - and thus sees Sir John as a reactionary enemy. He forces Olivia to choose between the two men in her life, and two very different ideas of post-war Britain.
At its best, Nunn's hybrid production is a masterful tonal mix: from effervescent Noël Coward-esque drawing room comedy, peppered with sly bon mots and crisp farcical set-pieces, to an almost Chekhovian frustrating of desire. Predicaments bordering on the absurd become achingly poignant thanks to a deep well of emotion: grief, complex familial bonds, love fractured and denied.
Rattigan's political vacillation is apparent, and occasionally problematic: the inclusion of the final act of Less Than Kind reveals Sir John's hard-nosed cunning, but Alfred Lunt's influence means the odds are weighted in the older man's favour. Michael's arguments are parroted, naïve and easily corrupted, and his application of them callous and hypocritical, while the benevolent, comparatively reasonable Sir John - despite the suggestion of nepotism and ethically dubious dealings - retains the moral high ground.
Closer interrogation of Sir John and more serious consideration of Michael's viewpoint would make this a richer piece, though Nunn's employment of Pathé newsreels provides useful context: Olivia and Sir John's patrician living is in strict contrast to wartime deprivation and William Beveridge's report championing the welfare state. The latter offers a more practical version of Michael's utopian ramblings, and a more hopeful one too; the play's view of socialism, in this incarnation, tends towards the dour and bullying.
Edward Bluemel does excellent work with the often-infuriating Michael, who's caught in the hinterland between child and adult (reflected by Olivia's vagueness about his age). He tries to manfully smoke and step into the role of protector and provider, but is also petulant, frequently ridiculous in his youthful conviction, clumsy in attempted manipulation (the Hamlet playacting immediately spotted), and all too vulnerable - it may be partly emotional blackmail, but his sobbing into Olivia's lap is still affecting.
That co-dependent relationship - which, as Sir John notes, might well interest Freud - is fascinatingly drawn. After four years' separation, mother and son are unrecognisable to one another, and their navigation is fraught: Olivia's coddling is understandable, but counterproductive; Michael's hatred of Sir John is motivated not just by politics or betrayal of his father's memory, but his mother's transformation, freed from his fixed conception of her as a dentist's wife in a dowdy Baron's Court flat.
The luminous Eve Best makes Olivia's scattiness charming, and her role-playing wonderfully human. Her admission that she overcompensates as society wife because she doesn't actually hold the title is telling; though a force of nature, waving away awkward situations with skilfully deployed small talk, there's insecurity too, sympathetically drawn out by Best. She's also bracingly honest in relating Olivia's love for her new upper-class lifestyle, in which she visibly thrives.
But if that contributes to her affection for Sir John, this is still a beautifully portrayed late-in-life romance; as noted by the placid, obliging maid (no interrogation of domestic service here), they seem like a long-married couple, complete with minor irritations and instinctive, mutual understanding. The endangerment of that bond gives much-needed weight to the ideological squabbles.
Anthony Head is a delightful partner to Best, wry, doting and delicately understated in his exasperation. He's a strong foil for Bluemel, too, whether comic (playing London public transport one-upmanship) or dramatic, gradually escalating their confrontations. Helen George is amusing support as Sir John's doll-like, coolly vampish estranged wife; her passive aggressive exchanges with Best's Olivia are a highlight.
Stephen Brimson Lewis's eloquent design contrasts aristocratic ease (and a touch of Westminster via green Commons benches) with murky deprivation - though the latter again tilts the argument. If such issues make this more fascinating than peerless, it's played with enough skill and conviction to ensure this is a thoroughly enjoyable rediscovery.
Love in Idleness at Menier Chocolate Factory until 29 April
Picture credit: Catherine Ashmore