Love in Idleness (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Posted: March 25, 2017 in Theatre


The name Terence Rattigan and the description “old-fashioned” now go hand-in-hand but countless revivals of the writer’s plays over the last decade or so have proved conclusively that it is worth clearing that particular hurdle to delve deeper into his work. One such revival was Flare Path, directed by Trevor Nunn, who now turns to this play, also written and set during World War II. The return to the London stage of the luminous Eve Best puts the icing on Nunn’s cake

Towards the end of the War, Michael (Edward Bluemel), a month short of his 18th Birthday, arrives home from four years in Canada to find his widowed, lower middle class mother Olivia (Best) shacked up with prominent industrialist and wartime cabinet minister, upper middle class  Sir John Fletcher (Anthony Head), who is separated from his flighty wife (Helen George). Michael, his head filled with progressive left wing ideas, identifies himself with Hamlet and proceeds to drive a wedge between his mother and her beau. Issues surrounding marital breakdown and distressed children are probably more common now than when the play first appeared, but it is the class structure about which Rattigan writes with perception that makes the play feel old-fashioned, while at the same time generating its prime areas of interest,

In Rattigan’s world, wealth and power are distributed unfairly and unevenly. The dice falls differently today, but, otherwise, has so much changed? The differences which we see most starkly are in the roles of men and women, the latter appearing (in ascending class order) as a chambermaid, a toiling housewife and a party hostess. Nunn’s production is acutely aware of gender and class issues, highlighting them with sets and costumes, particularly in a final act which contrasts sharply with what has preceded it. Best’s beautifully nuanced performance shows us all the shackles that hold Olivia down and it feels as if her deliberate vagueness is just part of what is expected of her while playing the role in which life has cast her. This is a comedy, staged to boost morale during the War, and Olivia does not assume the tragic dimensions of Joan in After the Dance or Hester in The Deep Blue Sea, but she fascinates and illustrates yet again Rattigan’s gift for writing oppressed female characters with subtlety and insight.

Bluemel’s Michael, wearing his Oedipus complex like a badge, is thoroughly obnoxious and fully deserves the spanking with which Sir John threatens him and which would have been permissible in those days. Even so, the warmth in the Hamlet/Gertrude relationship comes across strongly. Through Michael, Rattigan foresees Britain’s post-War lurch towards Socialism and to some extent he welcomes it, but he also sees clearly that individual ambition inevitably bursts the bubble of Socialist idealism and predicts that changes will be short-lived. The writer’s prescience gives out a message that may not go down too well with modern day Corbynites. So, yes it is all very old-fashioned, but still relevant and this delicious revival is never less than hugely entertaining.

Performance date: 24 March 2017

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