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A CurtainUp London Review
Rattle of a Simple Man
by Brian Clover
This might seem an unlikely question today when no one is innocent and we are used to seeing all kinds of intimacy on the stage. But Rattle of a Simple Man was first produced in 1962, when taboos were much stronger: it must have seemed quite daring then. For the first act our pair dances around the mattress in a clumsy quadrille of attraction and repulsion without ever actually lying down on it. Forty years ago this must have caused agonies to the official censor and ecstasies in the audience, as well as pangs of frustration for both. But the censor is long gone - the Lord Chamberlain, he was called. What can he be doing now? - and audiences are used to stronger stuff.
The piece was probably revived as a vehicle for East Enders soap star Michelle Collins. In fact the real problem for the two characters is not casual sex, but chronic loneliness. But Cyrenne and Percy's awkward progress towards a genuine relationship does give us the chance to see Ms Collins in a nice array of costumes. She is constantly changing these, on and off-stage. The opportunity of seeing her in items of revealing black underwear, with names missing from my vocabulary, may well be enough to draw her many fans to the Comedy and guarantee the play a long run.
Collins plays Cyrenne, the cool professional whose practised cynicism is a brittle shell masking a damaged little girl. As befits a soap queen, Michelle Collins does wide-eyed, knuckle-biting passion very well. In the second act she brings real power to the tense scene with her brother, with its hints of pain and incest. Unfortunately she is not so good at the comic rhythms needed for the rest of the play, although, to be fair, she isn't really helped by Charles Dyer's often clunky script.
Stephen Tompkinson, an actor with superb comic skills, is much better as the naïve football fan from Manchester, out of his depth in wicked London. He moves with ease from rattle-waving drunken bravado to hung-over remorse to tender vulnerability, hinting at the tragedy of an unfulfilled life. But can he really persuade us he's a 42 year old virgin who lives with his parents? A man who can say he is a scoutmaster without a hint of irony? A man who can believe for a moment that Cyrenne is a brigadier's daughter? Well, he does his best.
It's not that Rattle of a Simple Man is too dated for us, rather that the central relationship is never really believable and finally veers towards sentimentality. However a glow of nostalgia fills the theatre, greatly helped by Robert Jones's clever set, as we are reminded of a time when a grown man could blush to hear the word "bottom", when blue cheese was the height of culinary daring, when Britain had a manufacturing industry, and when Dusty Springfield topped the pops. But nostalgia is not enough and towards the end of the evening the question we're asking is not, Will they use that bed? but, Do we really care?
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