In Praise of Love

Terrence Rattigan
Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Production photo

"Write about what you know" is the advice usually given to authors, and Rattigan certainly took this to heart with his stories of father/son relationships, the suicide of a lover and terminal illness (the latter believed to be based on the tragically early death from cancer of his dear friend Kay Kendall, wife of Rex Harrison) but most of all he wrote about what he called the English Vice - “It isn’t quite the thing to parade your emotions publicly” - and his characters suffer from the inability to express their true feelings, especially to the ones they love most.

Rattigan enjoyed enormous success with his early plays, but in 1956 the arrival of John Osborne and his Look Back in Anger changed the expectations of theatregoers and critics were quick to point out that these ‘kitchen sink’ dramas were more true to life, now regarding Rattigan’s work as old-fashioned. (He took their criticism to heart, and it is no accident that the most obnoxious character in this play, Sebastian, is a critic.) How wrong they were! It is his plays which delve deeper into the human psyche, probing the hidden depths below the surface and discovering the true realism. Don’t we all know how difficult it can be to express our real feelings, and sometimes doesn’t a little lie, or a withholding of the facts help a situation or a relationship, or, as son Joey believes, should we always tell the truth? “No” says his mother Lydia. “Pretend like hell.”

This play was Rattigan’s last before his own cancer claimed his life, and true to his characters he also concealed the seriousness of the disease from his friends.

Matthew Wright’s set is the living room of a flat in Islington in the early seventies, and the floor to ceiling shelves are lined with books. We have a family of three: Lydia (Suzanne Burden) who cares for her selfish, inconsiderate husband, a literary critic who criticises everything, especially his son who has had the temerity to become a Liberal candidate in an important by-election, giving the dreaded Conservatives a chance to gain power; son Joey (Philip Cumbus) has also written a play which is to be broadcast on the BBC and he is apprehensive, nervous, and anxious for his father’s approval, but he waits in vain for a verdict while Lydia tries desperately to cover up the fact that Sebastian (Michael Thomas) has forgotten. The impression of Sebastian is not a good one to say the least but, as in most of Rattigan’s work, things are not quite as they seem.

Estonian Lydia has been through the nightmare of a concentration camp and narrowly managed to escape death while the bodies of her friends were piled up around her. Tragically, and due to the horrors of her earlier life, she is now the one with a terminal illness, but she won’t “bore” her husband with this knowledge, although she can confide in American friend Mark (Nathan Osgood), a successful and wealthy fiction writer who showers them both with expensive presents – to Sebastian’s resentment - and ultimately tries to bridge the lack of communication between them. Does he succeed? Possibly! A game of chess between father and son might just be the reconciliation they need – or maybe not!

It would be impossible to praise one performer above another. They were all so convincing that, in the intimate Minerva Theatre with the audience surrounding the stage, it seemed that we were present in their lives and involved in every moment. A well directed and outstanding production of an perceptive and powerful play, and another well chosen addition to Chichester’s summer season.

Playing until 8th July

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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