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Love in Idleness
"I hate her being the mistress of a rich, old voluptuary." — Michael
Love in Idleness
Olivia Brown (Eve Best) and Michael Brown (Edward Bluemel) (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Terence Rattigan's play Less Than Kind, but never staged, was adapted by him as a vehicle for the Broadway acting duet The Lunts: Alfred Lunt and his wife Lynne Fontanne, and renamed with another quote from Hamlet, as Love in Idleness. This first Love in Idleness version had cut out much of the political agenda in Less Than Kind. Nick Hern Books published both plays side by side in 2011. Trevor Nunn has taken both scripts and combined them in the present production. The original play was seen as the third in the unofficial wartime trilogy which started with Rattigan's Air Force drama Flare Path. (For my review of the London production of Trevor Nunn's Flare Path in 2011 go here).

In other reviews of Rattigan's plays I have written at length as how his playwriting career was cut short by the admiration of the "Angry Young Men" of the 1950s— specifically Kenneth Tynan, the theatre critic and literary manager of the National Theatre who eventually brought some of the Noel Coward repertoire into the National Theatre fold but ignored Rattigan. I am an admirer of Rattigan and his satisfactorily constructed plays but at the interval of Love in Idleness I had some doubts.

The play, which uses archive news footage of 1944 and later, is set at the end of World War Two when evacuated children are being allowed to return to London. Olivia Brown (Eve Best), a dentist's widow from Barons Court is taken unawares by the arrival of her son Michael (Edward Bluemel). She is vague about his exact age as it also dates her. He is almost 18 and has been in Canada for the last four years. Olivia has met and is living with cabinet minister Sir John Fletcher (Anthony Head) who is in charge of tank production in Winston Churchill's wartime government. Although separated from his wife, Sir John did not want a divorce scandal to disrupt the war time cabinet or to be used as Nazi propaganda so he and Olivia are living in sin.

Michael arrives shocked that his mother is no longer living in straitened circumstances and with very fixed opinions about the industrialist Sir John Fletcher and his reportedly oppressive manner of dealing with the unions. It seems that Michael has been politicised in Canada and Sir John Fletcher was vilified there in the left wing political set Michael was mixing with. The play opened with Olivia very loudly cajoling people to come to dinner with her and I must say I warmed neither to her gushing nor to her sulky, priggish son.

In fact the most reasonable person seemed to be Sir John whom Anthony Head has given the softest of Canadian accents. When Michael suggests that they should have supper at a cafe in Barons Court and instead of taking Sir John's car they should go by tube, Sir John trumps the boy by instead suggesting that they should go by bus and is perfect on the bus journeys they need to take and where they change for which bus. While Michael parallels his situation with Hamlet and casts his mother as Gertrude and Sir John as Claudius, he obtains a book on poisoning and resolves to put on an antic disposition, posing with his forehead resting on his fist like Rodin's Thinker. When he suggests that they should all go to the theatre, it is of course The Mousetrap but my sources tell me it didn't open until 1952!

The second half sees Olivia giving up her luxurious lifestyle and social life, dining at the Savoy and the Dorchester, to return to the then humble surroundings of Barons Court in order to be with her son. While a net is drawn across the stage and war time footage is showing, including William Beveridge talking about his plan for social security, the house behind is transformed into the grubby bedsitter Olivia shares with her son.

The intervention of Sir John's estranged wife Lady Fletcher (Helen George) brings this ditsy woman with her frivolous taste in clothes and hats to the notice of Michael. The happy ending is one I could not have guessed at and I did think that the play had a feel good element in its conclusion.

Eve Best strikes an interesting note, initially she is braying and annoying as a manipulative society hostess but after telling us that her attraction to Sir John is inseparable from the affluence he affords her and that she loves him as the whole package, she decides to slum it back in Barons Court doing what her son has asked. Anthony Head doesn't show the ruthless capitalist Sir John is meant to be and has surprising patience with Edward Bluemer as Olivia's annoying, rude and boorish son whose eyebrows are permanently knitted in anger and resentment. Helen George's Lady Fletcher is a pretty little spoilt girl and the scene where she meets Olivia for the first time is a delight as Olivia keeps up social convention by greeting her as if she were a friend and not the estranged wife of her lover.

It isn't Rattigan's best play but the Menier production is interesting and charming in its conclusion to all except those who believe that all captains of industry are merciless exploiters of the proletariat.

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Love in Idleness
Written by Terence Rattigan
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Starring: Eve Best, Anthony Head
With: Edward Bluemel, Helen George, Vivienne Rocheater, Nicola Sloane
Design: Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting Design: Paul Pyant
Sound Design: Gregory Clarke
Projection Design: Duncan McLean
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7378 1713
Booking to 29th April 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 22nd March 2016 performance at The Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark Street, London SE1
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