THE WOMEN AND THE BOYS: YOUNG RATTIGAN BEGINS…
There’s a rugby ball and a bottle of Oxford Ale, clothbound law books, pipes, a cricket bat, 1930’s clutter. There are tweeds and cricket sweaters and waistcoats and immaculate whites. And it’s not entirely frivolous to start with design and costumes (Neil Irish and Emily Stuart): for that lovingly detailed attention to a particular period and place reflects the care and significance lavished on this first revival of Terence Rattigan’s first play.
Its milieu is important: an undergraduate shared house in Oxford, a male world where best friends Tony and David (Gavin Fowler and Philip Labey) are theatre-minded, social confident pups, sharing with the sporty Philip and the nerdy, bespectacled, prim Bertie. A butler tends their needs, but Proctors and “Bulldogs” police their social lives, making guests leave at midnight and banning them from lustful visits for “Female companionship” at the King’s Head. In those days (indeed, right up to my own late 1960’s when Burton and Taylor dropped in) OUDS plays had the clout to draw down not only national critics but professional female stars: Peggy Ashcroft came to play Juliet. In this play it is the glamorous Margot, recruited as Cleopatra against the youthful director Tony’s Antony. She is given pitch-perfect actressy charm by Caroline Langrishe until – equally perfectly – she stumbles into the emotional pit and becomes, vividly, the ancestress of Rattigan’s great portraits of middle-aged women shipwrecked by wrong love: Alma Rattenbury, Hester Collyer, Millie Crocker-Harris.
Rattigan was only 22, gave a co-writing credit to Philip Heimann his friend (model, probably for the characters’ casual love lives) and he did not include it in his Collected Plays. Probably thought it juvenilia, not to be remembered. But goodness, it’s Rattigan all the way: a first strike at the great themes of his heyday, and not least evidence of his heartbreaking ability – astonishingly young – to write strong woman characters. But youthful high spirits will win through, and until its rueful darkening in the final act, it’s a fine comedy, with real student rumbustiousness (which director Tom Littler amusingly uses to create some dancing, larking scene-changes).
There’s a wonderful turn by Molly Hanson as a dim but amiably willing flapper passed between the young men with a shrug, and a fearlessly hilarious, showstopping portrait from Adam Buchanan of the prim, naive geek Bertie, with his feeble moustache and round specs.
Bertie, indeed, is a very good joke in himself. For the story has Tony and Margo becoming emotionally entangled, despite the twenty-year age difference, with what she exasperatedly calls “you screaming brawling children” and the sardonic David, with homosocial if not actually carnal jealousy, possessively resents his friend’s involvement. It sails near the wind: the Lord Chamberlain insisted on changes of language, the Public Morality Council found it “unpleasant and immoral” and one critic huffed “I cannot commend the morals of the piece, which shows a number of undergraduates a little too preoccupied with sex”. Thus the joke is that Bertie – in a series of wonderful moments when he talks up virginity and cricketing team-spirit and tries to warn the all-too-knowing Joan about the “danger” she is in if she gets kissed – is in himself an embodiment of the censors, and of all that inter-war panic about young people getting out of control.
But the remarkable thing is that this young Rattigan, despite his obvious debt to Coward comedies, is drilling deep already into the dark. Into emotional male bonding, the alien strength and vulnerability of women, and the profound sadness of impossible love. This terrific, close-up, thoughtful production does him honour.
BOX OFFICE 020 7287 2875 to 22 Nov http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk