Terence Rattigan was a dead playwright walking for about half of his career. Between the 30s and the 50s he’d written some of the classic studies in English class-consciousness and repression: The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, Separate Tables, before his reputation as blown out of the water by the arrival of the Angry Young Men. After John Osborne had set his hero striding about the stage and slagging off the Establishment’s pusillanimity in Look Back in Anger, careful and tighly-plotted parables which suggested that something was wrong in our England didn’t really cut it anymore. My copy of the Penguin Dictionary of the Theatre calls him “British playwright, whose well-constructed plays demonstrate the author’s command of stagecraft”, which is kicking a fellow when he is both down and dead, if you ask me.
Recently, however, he’s having a bit of a boom. Long confined to school syllabi and worthy TV dramas, Rattigan is back on the stage, buoyed up the by centenary of his birth in 2011. The National Theatre restaged After the Dance last year, the Theatre Royal Haymarket scooped some awards with Flare Path, and Less Than Kind saw its first production since it was written in 1944. The programme makes much of this “lost play” angle, though it’s really just the first draft of a more successful play which Rattigan felt had been ruined in development by egotistical stars. Still, Less Than Kind is a thoroughly enjoyable piece. Standing further back from Rattigan than his contemporaries, we can find his over-plotting ironic rather than contrived and his humour charming rather than complacent.
The set-up is intriguing. The scene opens with what looks like “An Inspector Calls model, No.3 variant” set: a smart flat with part of the wall carved away and a bomb-blasted building looming above it. A woman in pyjamas is on the telephone, cajoling a famous novelist and a cabinet minister into coming to her dinner party. We discover that her seventeen year-old son is coming back from Canada today, and that she’s wondering how to explain to him that since his father died she’s been living at the expense of a politician who can’t divorce his wife because of the scandal…and suddenly it clicks. The Hamlet reference in the title is for real, confirmed when the son arrives back and takes an instant dislike (aided by his socialist convictions) to the wealthy industrialist-turned-minister who is living in sin with his mother. It’s Rattigan’s attempt to take the basic Hamlet situation and write a play which is both funnier (more jokes and stronger sense of the ludicrous in life) and more serious (more realistic and less willing to solve everything with corpses.)
If you’ll allow him the chutzpah, it’s much more fun than it sounds. David Osmond is superb as the idealistic son: irritatingly patronizing, admirably ardent for reform and amusingly bothered about sex. Rattigan gives his mother more space than Gertrude is allowed in the original play, and Sara Crowe takes full advantage of the room to build a powerful character. She comes out as the play’s real hero: pragmatic, ironic and more aware than the men how little their choices will affect their destinies. James Wilby is better at the light passages than the emotional ones, but he picks up nimbly on Rattigan’s more genial and sincere version of Claudius. The one problem comes in the resolution, which feels a lot like (I won’t spoil the plot) mankind being reconciled with itself by realizing how vapid and cheap most women are. If the show knows that we won’t stand for endings like that these days, Adrian Brown’s direction needs to distance us from the characters, which didn’t really happen. The whole thing is definitely worth an outing to see.