20 April 2017

Love in Idleness

The Menier Theatre

Stars ****

by Adam McCormack

Not all theatre has to be relevant.  Sometimes a charming and engaging story, which may have something to say about a previous time, can provide perfect entertainment.  With this in mind there is no need to justify Trevor Nunn’s new production of Terence Rattigan’s 1944 play, Love in Idleness (itself a reworking of a play originally called Less Than Kind) other than as a good story well told; that can be more than enough.

Olivia (Eve Best) is in her element.  Vivacious and irresistible, she has escaped a loveless and impoverished marriage (her husband died) and is now the mistress of Sir John Fletcher (Anthony Head), a wealthy industrialist and cabinet minster.  She delights in her smart London residence and in compelling notable authors to dine with the likes of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

This idyllic lifestyle is rudely interrupted by the return of her son, Michael (Edward Bluemell) who has spent the war as an evacuee in Canada.  She insists on remembering him as a small boy, but he considers himself a man (of 17 years and 11 months), with strong views on his mother’s new lifestyle and choice of partner.  He has become a left-wing enthusiast.  He insists that his mother returns to her old lifestyle, although his socialist leanings do not prevent him accepting a job offer prompted by his mother’s lover, and he and Olivia are forced to move to a bedsit.  The story develops further as Sir John’s wife Diana (Helen George) appears, in search of help to pay her gambling debts, as Sir John strives to win back Olivia.

There may be valid questions asked about the triumph of motherly love over all other, and the steps to which a man will go to win the woman he desires, but for the most part this is a period piece.  We do get some insight as to the travails of being a single mother in wartime, and the difficulties of renewing relationships with family members after the long gaps necessitated by the war.  However, where this play really works is as a love story – which the performances of Eve Best and Anthony Head make especially heart-warming.  It also works as a comedy – there are shades of Evelyn Waugh (Sir John is Minister for Tanks), and Edward Bluemell gives a perfect study of adolescent angst.  Helen George is more than capable of playing a china doll-like high maintenance society wife, although the role is less than demanding and gives some concern that she might slip into being typecast.

Overall this is a very entertaining celebration of a tremendous writer on top form, delivered by some exceptional acting talent.

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