After the intensity of last night’s Hamlet, I was in need of something a little more jovial for my Saturday afternoon visit to the theatre, and Rattigan did not disappoint.
Michael was a child evacuee, sent to Canada during the war. His mother receives the news that he is coming back to Britain. In her eyes her small boy is coming back, in reality it is a teenager of nearly 18 who is returning home. Neither a child nor a man is returning home, and the play shows the upheaval that is brought to people’s lives when a new person enters the fray, especially when that person is so demanding and you don’t wish to hurt their feelings.
Whilst Michael has been living in Canada, his widowed mother has fallen in love with a cabinet minister, Sir John Fletcher. She is living with him in an opulent house in Westminster, she is living the dream, lying on the sofa arranging a dinner party and inviting authors and the Chancellor to dinner with great aplomb. This is far removed from the life she had before, the life that Michael knew before he left Britain. She is deliriously happy, telling Sir John that her little boy is coming home, Sir John however is a savvy man and calculates that Michael is actually nearly 18, and that despite her protestations he is not his mummy’s little boy anymore, he is nearly a man, and will have thoughts of his own.
Sir John is proved correct when Michael arrives; he takes an instant dislike to Sir John. This man is living with his mother, and his right wing politics do not live up to Michael’s left wing views. Stuck in the middle of this is Michael’s mother, torn between the two men she loves. What can she do? Whatever path she chooses she is going to hurt one of them. This is where Eve Best as Olivia Brown comes into her own. She could have played the hair-brained Olivia as a vacuous character that you didn’t really care about, but she added a great depth of character to the part. She showed layers of depth and vulnerability as she desperately clung to her ‘little boy’, hiding her true feelings beneath idle chit chat; a veneer that was easy for the onlooker to see through. They could see the difficulties she faced choosing between the two men in her life. Should she put herself in second place for her son’s happiness? She had, after all, packed him away as a child and missed him growing up. There would be a feeling of guilt, despite knowing that he was safer in Canada and she was doing her best for him. There was an undeniable conflict between her current unworthy life of luxury, and the return to living in a basic bedsit with her son and his idealistic vision of a fairer world for everyone.
Edward Bluemel is perfectly cast as the idealistic Michael, showing utter contempt that Sir John believes the ‘New World’ will be just the same as the old ‘but spring cleaned a little.’ His adolescent outbursts echo the torment faced by Hamlet, a reference that Sir John is quick to point out to his mother. Watching this and the similarities to Hamlet, helped put both plays in context, they allowed me a greater understanding of why Hamlet didn’t rush to kill his uncle. After Hamlet questions had been raised, after Love in Idleness some of them had been answered!
Edward is an actor to look out for. He has that perfect comic timing, and the ability to use his eyes and face to convey meaning without saying a word. I believe that that is the mark of a good actor, for them to transport you into how they are feeling, and as he flings himself face down on his bed, covered in lipstick, he looks both adorable as a young child might, and heart-breaking as one remembers the pain of growing up.
Anthony Head is adept at portraying the exasperated Sir John. He was quite happy until the appearance of “this odious little rat” but as he loves Olivia, he tries to love her child too. His comic timing was perfection, although both he and Eve Best began corpsing in a scene towards the end when they were sat at her small kitchen table. Once they started, the audience started, and the audience really didn’t help the pair to get back on track. A few minutes passed before a collective audience and actors pulled themselves together and silenced beckoned for the rest of the scene.
All of the Rattigan plays I have seen performed on stage have not disappointed, and neither did this one. From the outset I knew I was in for a treat. The stage was shrouded in a gauze curtain which has old Pathe newsreels projected onto it as scene changes took place. This was an intelligent way to link the seriousness of the political situation with the triviality of dinner parties. This showed that Rattigan was understood, that his lightweight comedy had layers to them; and that underneath all of the laughter was a poignant message of parents, children and love.