Review of Love In Idleness at Menier Chocolate Factory
There's a long-established narrative that Terence Rattigan, darling of the West End stage in the 1940s and 50s, was consigned to the theatrical scrapheap by the arrival of the Angry Young Men of the Royal Court in the mid-50s, led by John Osborne and the 1956 premiere of Look Back in Anger there. But theatrical fashion is a peculiar thing: nowadays you are far more likely to see a Rattigan revival than an Osborne one, let alone a play by other angry young men like John Arden, David Storey or Arnold Wesker.
But while acknowledged Rattigan masterpieces like The Deep Blue Sea (revived at the National last year), The Browning Version, The Winslow Boy and Ross come around again and again, there's also an increasing trade in his lesser known works too -- Kenneth Branagh's resident West End company at the Garrick included his 1948 one act backstage comedy Harlequinade. Now the Menier have alighted on Love in Idleness, a 1944 rewrite of Rattigan's Less than Kind (itself seen at Jermyn Street Theatre in 2011), that has never been seen in London since its original 1944 production.
This is an old-fashioned play, to be sure; though it dances with timeless resonances as a nearly 18-year-old son confronts his widowed mother, when he returns from four years away in Canada where he'd been sent to keep him safe during the Second World War, about the new relationship she has forged with an industrialist who is a member of Churchill's wartime cabinet.
Here's another entry in one of Rattigan's favourite subjects of co-dependent relationships and the emotional blackmail people put on each other. The mother is forced to choose between the new life of privileged contentment she has with a man she is happy with and the son whose disapproval sends her back to living in far more frugal conditions.
Director Trevor Nunn, who previously did sterling work with another of Rattigan's war-time plays Flare Path in a West End season he curated at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2011, has staged a lovingly detailed, beautifully acted production. It is led by the stunning Eve Best, who captures the conflicted soul of the mother with perfect grace and grit and features fine support from Edward Bluemel as her supposedly principled teenager son, who is only too happy to surrender those principles for a cushy, well-paid civil service job. Anthony Head and Helen George are also superb as the mother's new lover and his former wife respectively.