By: Giles Cole
Director: Tom Latter
The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith.
Last week I marvelled afresh at what a fantastic play Terrence Rattigan's The
Browning Version is. Contained within an hours playing time are such
extraordinary insights into human cruelty and compassion that it puts other
writers to shame. It's run continues at the Harold Pinter Theatre. After the
show one of it's stars, Anna Chancellor, explained to me a little about the
circumstances in which it was written and the demons faced by its author so I
was delighted to hear that this biographical play about Rattigan was being
revied at the Riverside Studio as some how I missed its critically acclaimed
premiere last year.
As the lights go down the ageing Terry, as everyone seems to call him, greets
us and takes a seat in a gold theatre box on the edge of the stage to watch,
with us, pivotal scenes from his life. We begin at university when, as a rather
unpleasantly arrogant young man, he mocks his father as the old duffer tells
him of an unfortunate royal liaison that cost him his career. Although the
young writer doesn't realise it such shameful imporpiaties and their
consequences will inspire his work for the rest of his life. So many of his
characters carry secrets and repressed passions. Perhaps it's no wonder, we
discover in subsequent scenes that he had to hide his homosexuality, illegal
until 1968, from the public for most of his life.
The theatre world knew, of course, as they knew about his contemporaries Noel
Coward and Ivan Novello and these three dominated the West End stage in the
1930s, 40s and 50s until they fell out of favour; swept away by a new fashion
for the edgy, working class drama emanating from the Royal Court. In our
century we've been able to see beyond this inverted snobbery and recognise the
best plays of these gay men as the masterpieces of wit and psychological
insight that they are.
An accomplished company of actors, led by the dashing Ashley Cook as the
glacial young Terry, engagingly play out fragments of Rattigan's memories until,
ignored by the public and mocked by the press, he disintegrates into self pity
and alcohol abuse.
It's fascinating stuff if you're a fan of Rattigan but even if you're not it's
a moving portrail of the rise and fall of a great talent who seemed to inspire
enormous loyalty from those around him, particularly from the pretty boys who
were drawn to his wealth but then stuck around, craving his affection. Other
more parasitic friends are beautifully captured by writer and cast, as is the
doting mother, bewildered father and even "Aunt Edna" , a vison the
ailing writer has of his typical audience.
Often biographical plays seem ridiculous as characters have to drop information
artificially into conversation to teach us what they already know. For the most
part Giles Cole's script avoids such pit falls. Although it slightly outstays
it's welcome this is a fascinating evening for theatre aficionados and a moving
portrait of a cruel nervous breakdown for anyone else.
It might be interesting to see this in tandem with His Greatness - the stage
depiction of another brilliant, gay playwright wrestling with unfashinable
middle age, the American, Tennessee Williams; currently playing at the
VERDICT: **** (Four Stars) Vintage show business gossip and fine acting make
this subtle and moving pay a must-see for anyone interested in playwriting and
post WW2 theatre.
booking link http://www.gilescole.com/