Theatre - Secret History

By Evans, Lloyd | The Spectator, January 21, 2012 | Go to article overview

Theatre - Secret History


Evans, Lloyd, The Spectator


The Art of Concealment

Jermyn Street, until 28 January

Man in the Middle

Theatre 503, until 4 February

A year late but worth the wait. Last year's centenary of Terence Rattigan's birth brought two excellent revivals of lesser-known works, Flare Path and Cause Celebre, to London. But the playwright's personal story remains a subject of uncertainty and guesswork. Giles Cole's little gem of a play, The Art of Concealment, brings the dramatist's secret history to life.

Rattigan complained that to outsiders his success seemed quite effortless. In fact, his whole career was a fluke. After dropping out of Oxford without a degree, the young wannabe was given an ultimatum by his boorish, womanising father: succeed as a playwright or take a job in the Foreign Office. Rattigan failed. Every play he sent out came boomeranging back by return of post. In despair, and without telling her son, old Ma Rattigan parcelled up an early effort, Joie de Vivre, and posted it off to a producer, who liked everything about it except the title.

Rechristened French Without Tears, it ran for 1,000 performances in the West End. Rattigan was launched. But writing was a constant strain. He had to plunder his complex emotional life for material while carefully concealing his sexuality from the public.

In 1956 disaster overwhelmed him when John Osborne, armed with an ironing board, terminated his career almost overnight. His expertly crafted bourgeois tragedies suddenly seemed out of date. Under pressure from an ambitious director, he turned his breakthrough play into a song-'n'-dance show.

French Without Tears, The Musical closed after four days.

Rattigan retreated to his study and spent endless afternoons poring over press cuttings of former triumphs while swigging gallons of neat whisky.

Cole's script uses the blunt device of two narrators, the older and the younger Rattigan, but this deliberately naive gesture seems appropriate to a play that strips the dramatist's craft down to its bare components.

Alistair Findlay plays the ageing Rattigan as a stoical sybarite cheerfully sloshing back treble Scotches despite his failing health. Judy Buxton gives a rigorous account of Rattigan's crisp, no-nonsense mother who went to her grave believing that her bachelor son was married to his career. And Graham Pountney provides terrific entertainment as Rattigan senior, a hilariously insensitive sports nut, whose diplomatic career ended after a hushed-up affair with an unmarried princess, and who was desperate for his son to gain the success, and the knighthood, that had eluded him. …

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