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A CurtainUp London Review
Set in an Oxbridge college, (Rattigan studied at Trinity College Oxford), First Episode is flawed but interesting as indicative of his later writing. It was condemned at the time by the morality police because to quote one, they couldn't believe Oxford undergraduates would commit such debauchery.
First Episode is based on the events around a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Oxford University Dramatic Society when George Devine, later the founder of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, brought in John Gielgud to direct and Peggy Ashcroft, then aged 24, to play Juliet. Although the play's incidence of sex, the gambling and the over consumption of alcohol are based on real life events, they didn't all happen together or in the space of two and a half hours as they do in the theatre.
What is interesting about First Episode is its exploration of gay emotions almost forty years after the trial of Oscar Wilde for indecency, "the love that dared not speak its name". The feelings undergraduate scholar David (Philip Labey) has for Tony (Gavin Fowler) are only implied. First Episode also has description of an infatuation between an older woman and a younger man and that of several male undergraduates interacting with a not very bright town girl of easy virtue.
Interesting too is that the play first shows in London in 1933, the year that the Oxford Union, and Rattigan was one of them in his third year, voted not to fight for King and Country. However he joined the Royal Air Force in World War Two as did many who had voted for the motion.
We meet the group of undergraduates living together in college rooms, David Lister, Albert Arnold, known as Bertie (Adam Buchanan), Scotsman Philip Kahn (Alex Hope) and Tony Wodehouse. Bertie has a back room role with the Dramatic Society and is less sophisticated, more naive, than the others. Tony is never seen without his evening dress white silk scarf and has pretensions to match. James (Harry Gostelow) is their college servant. The two women are Joan Taylor (Molly Hanson) a local girl who is not a blue stocking and Margot Gresham (Caroline Langrishe). Without the Rattigan connection there might be too little pace to keep your attention here for close three hours.
I very much liked Molly Hanson's performance as Joan, the girl with a luscious body and small brain. Her comedy role is very well played and great fun and could almost be classified as farce. I hope other directors will pick up on her comic talent.
The flaw for me was not being able to believe the relationship between Tony and Margot and without this credibility which is down to casting and sexual chemistry, the whole play is less effective because we care too little about the outcome. However I liked Philip Labey's depth as David but couldn't see why he too was attracted to Gavin Fowler's Tony. The ultimate outcomes for David are very similar to Rattigan's own at Oxford. Adam Buchanan starts in a very stiff way as Bertie, a buffoon but comes into his own towards the end of the play with some lovely scenes with Joan. Alex Hope brings musical talent to the play.
The director has taken a leaf out if the Finborough/Arcola's book with jaunty scene changes to music but these are a tad lacking in movement to be fully effective. The detailed set of the study is in period and the costumes are accurate, including the right university gowns.
Editor Dan Rebellato had several versions of this play to work from and his introduction is the text is well worth the read. Even for a juvenile work there are glimpses of the understanding of human tragedy that Rattigan was to go on to convey so well.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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