Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Variation on a Theme

Terence Rattigan
HPZ Productions
Finborough Theatre

Rachael Stirling (Rose) Credit: Helen Maybanks
Susan Tracey (Hettie) and Martin McCreadie (Ron) Credit: Helen Maybanks
Susan Tracey (Hettie) and Rachael Stirling (Rose) Credit: Helen Maybanks

Variation on a Theme is one of those hidden gems that the Finborough is so good at unearthing.

Before the run had even opened, the team at the theatre found themselves with a sell-out hit on their hands. That was probably down to the dual attractions of a Terence Rattigan play that had not seen the light of day for half a century and its leading lady, Rachael Stirling.

Quite why such a fine play should have disappeared is a mystery. This modern reworking of Dumas's La Dame aux Camélias (the theme that is varied) is gripping and heartrending, offering its female star a chance to shine in a tragic role with more than its fair share of comic moments.

Following in the footsteps of Margaret Leighton, who played opposite Jeremy Brett in John Gielgud's 1958 production, Miss Stirling shows her mettle as Rose Fish, a seriously unhealthy, thrice married gold-digger forced to choose between two men in a stylish Riviera home, designed by Fotini Dimou.

The more glamorous Monsieur Anton Valov, soon revealed as the rather more prosaic Ron Vale, is a beautiful, self-obsessed, not quite Russian ballet dancer whose accent is so bad that it comes as no surprise to discover that, like Rose, he heralds from Birmingham. Competition comes from Kurt Mast, a tycoon who got so rich on the back of the wartime black market and he can even get away with an accent like Arnold Schwarzenegger's.

The battle between love and money is expertly realised with power shifting constantly until a tragic ending closely modelled on the classic work of French literature.

Bringing succour along the way are a triumvirate, all of whom care deeply for a dissolute friend. Susan Tracy gives Lady Henrietta (Hettie) Crichton-Parry a wicked sense of humour but also a high degree of sympathy. She may be the daughter of a duke no less but, following a bad run at the gaming tables, is reduced to paid companionship for Rose, combined with frustrated devotion far beyond the call of duty.

Less supportive is Rebecca Burch's sulky 16-year-old Fiona, who leads not very much older Mum a merry dance. There can be little doubt that this relatively tame wild child has been created not only to frustrate Rose but also show viewers what she must have been like at the same age.

Rattigan's representative on stage is choreographer Sam, given a haunting cameo by David Shelley. He celibately loves and supports Ron, understanding him far better than Rose ever will, however much she is in thrall to the pretty dancer nine years her junior.

The mixture of a modern play of manners set amongst the smart set in Cannes and a tragedy that has entered the modern psyche proves intoxicating, greatly assisted by Miss Stirling in great form and a strong supporting cast.

It would be a great shame if Michael Oakley's stirring 2½-hour long revival does nothing more than play for four weeks to packed audiences at the tiny Finborough. With ticket demand so great and a high profile star, surely a West End transfer must follow.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher