The Theatreguide.London Review
Menier Chocolate Factory Spring 2017
This is a pleasant little drawing room comedy, the sort they literally don't write any more.
It makes some half-hearted gestures toward serious ideas and character depth, but those are the weakest parts, and you're best off ignoring them and just enjoying its trivial social dance.
The kind of light entertainment more notable for the women's gowns than any dramatic content, it is the sort of play that, when tastes changed, killed Terrence Rattigan's critical reputation by making it easy to dismiss him as trivial (unfairly, of course, since his best plays contained a surprising emotional depth and critical bite).
The time is 1944. A young widow's son was evacuated to Canada during the blitz and returns as an eighteen-year-old, a bit of a socialist and more than a bit of a prig.
In his absence his mother met a rich married businessman and government minister, the two fell in love and, he being unable to get a divorce for the duration, settled happily into an affair, she happily admitting that she enjoys her new life as a social butterfly almost as much as she loves him.
Her son, never quite sure whether he's more offended by his mother's dishonour or her lover's politics, mopes about, playing (as someone openly notes) at being Hamlet, until he finally gives his mother a him-or-me ultimatum.
Who will she choose? Will she stick to her choice? Will there be a happy ending? While Rattigan was perfectly capable of foiling our expectations, in this case he chose not to, and much of the fun of the play lies in the ingenious ways he guides things toward a conclusion that will let us leave the theatre satisfied and unshaken.
And now a bit of pedantry, that will prove relevant. Rattigan wrote this play with the title Less Than Kind and offered it to the married acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the American equivalents, in stature and glittering star quality, of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.
The Lunts asked for rewrites, generally reducing the political debates and building up the romantic comedy of the older couple, and had a success with the revised version now titled Love In Idleness. For this Menier production, director Trevor Nunn combined bits of both texts.
The relevant factor here is that the Lunt-Fontanne version was written as a star vehicle, exploiting and relying on the glamour, polish, seemingly effortless elegance and star energy the actors would bring to their roles.
Just as they don't write plays like this any more, they don't make many stars of that sort any more. The central couple in this Menier production, Eve Best and Anthony Head, are excellent actors about whom nothing negative can be said – except that they bring no star quality to the roles.
They serve the play diligently and admirably, but ultimately facelessly, giving the kind of performances really excellent understudies might give, doing nothing wrong but leaving us always aware of something missing.
This is not their fault, or even entirely that of the director who cast them. As I said, there are no Lunts and Fontannes around, though Trevor Nunn might have found actors more comfortable with stylish comedy, so we weren't quite so aware of the performers working hard at what should seem effortless.
In the opening scene, for example, Eve Best has to play a woman who is not really trivial and stupid enjoying playing at being trivial and stupid, and what we are most aware of are the externals of the actress posing beautifully and waving her arms about.
In a climactic scene Anthony Head's character stumbles on a way to win the boy over without his realising he's being co-opted, and we want to see more of a gleam in the older man's eye as he moves toward his triumph.
You might have noticed that I haven't mentioned the third actor in the triangle. In this text the boy is reduced to little more than a plot device, and Edward Bluemel is given too little to do to be able to do much with the role.
The same is true of the cameo appearance of the older man's happily estranged wife. When the previously unproduced Less Than Kind was done at the Jermyn Street Theatre in 2011, both the role and the actress impressed me as clever and entertaining filigree around the main action. In this text the character played by Helen George seems to have wandered in from some other play, leaving her and us never quite sure why she's here.
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