Charles Dyer’s 1962 play “Rattle Of A Simple Man” is set at the beginning of the sixties, when football fans’ still wore rosettes and spun wooden rattles. It was the days before the sexual revolution, or as Philip Larkin wistfully wrote in Annus Mirabilis “Sexual intercourse began in 1963, which was rather late for me.” ‘Sex’ was still a word parents whispered when they thought their children were not listening, and even such an innocuous word as ‘bottom’ could be a cause of embarrassment for some, especially in the north of England.
The play concerns Percy, a 42-year-old Manchurian soccer fan who depicts these quaint sensibilities; not to be vulgar in front of a lady; respect one’s elders, and always be loyal to the family.
Whilst visiting London to see a soccer match, Percy accepts a £50 bet from his mate to spend the night with a prostitute. He meets a prostitute called Cyrenne and goes back to her flat. Cyrenne quickly wants to get down to business and strips to her lingerie, however, despite Percy’s protestations that he has been with hundreds of women, he is now feeling shy and awkward and wishes to talk first. What unfolds is a sensitive revelation of two people’s loneliness.
Percy (Stephen Tompkinson) slowly admits to Cyrenne that he still lives with his mum; is a source of fun for his friends and that he feels very uneasy with anything to do with sex. “I’m everything the French laugh at about the English,” he bemoans. He is more comfortable putting on Cyrenne’s apron to wash the dishes then he is with the thought of climbing into her bed.
Cyrenne (Michelle Collins) initially appears cold and distant towards Percy, but gradually begins to empathise with his isolation. It soon becomes obvious that her tall stories about her privileged upbringing are a shield with which she fends off a painful past of sexual abuse.
Both these people lie as a way of disguising their loneliness. Percy lies in order to try and fit in as one of the boys and Cyrenne lies in order to imagine herself as part of a loving family. Slowly the lies begin to fall away as they learn to trust each other.
Stephen Tompkinson gives a wonderful performance as the gauche Percy, who expresses the mannerisms of a by-gone age, where a man never curses in front of a lady. He gives Percy an adolescent innocence, which only makes his admission of feeling inadequate all the more painful.
Michelle Collins has the more difficult character to play. In the first act there is little for her to do but invent fantasies about her past, however she hits the right tone in the second act. She swings from defiance to anguish with devastating ease and when the shell of her false persona finally cracks her vulnerability slowly seeps through.
John Caird’s production does its best to keep you focused upon the desperate neediness that lies at the heart of these two lonely people, but this cannot hide the play’s failings. The play needs adapting for a modern audience, for example when Percy is shocked that a woman would use the word “bottom” it may have made him appear quaint to a 1962 audience, now it merely makes him look stupid. But do not let this put you off seeing a carefully crafted observation of loneliness and the need we have to find a place and a person to which we can belong.
What other critics had to say.....
FIONA MOUNTFORD for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Leaden production finds no way in to any well spring of deep-running emotion." ELISABETH MAHONEY for THE GUARDIAN says, "A flat piece with little to engage us." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Tompkinson is in superb comic form....Collins, too, is deeply touching as a woman who has invented a romantic fantasy life because the memory of childhood abuse is too painful to live with." SARAH HEMMING for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Its structure is creaky and repetitive, its plot development clunky." IAN JOHNS for THE TIMES says, "Dyer’s clash between the worldly and unworldly carries few sparks here