One of the hardest things for any child to learn is that their mum is an entirely separate person, that they have their own thoughts, their own life and their own needs outside their role as a parent. Discovering that is part of the transition to adulthood, and understanding that your mother is not just protector and provider but has emotional depths, plans and wants that you may never have seen as a child, transforms the relationship. Becoming more like equals is part of growing up and it’s something that Terrence Rattigan explores in his Second World War comedy Love in Idleness that considers the seemingly modern concepts of second marriage, blended family and a teenager coming to turns with his mother’s human needs.
Once dismissed as staid and old-fashioned three or four act drawing-room melodramas about rich middle England, Rattigan’s work has the kind of emotional truth that continues to resonate with modern audiences, and since the Rattigan centenary in 2011, his plays have become a more regular feature on the London stage. However frivolous or occasionally farcical his characters, like all good comedy writers before and since, there is always a streak of deeply felt pain, particularly at the unevenness of love, that runs through his work and allows him to switch from light to dark in an instant. It’s a technique he uses sparingly in Love in Idleness, transferring from the Menier to the Apollo, but opens-up the heart of the characters quite suddenly.
In most fiction, we’re given a rose-tinted view of love with two people caring for each other equally, whereas, in reality, one person usually loves more than the other, and this is something Rattigan’s plays are often concerned with. Last year’s beautiful production of The Deep Blue Sea at the National is a perfect example and while Helen McCrory’s Hester was shamefully overlooked by the Olivier panel – it should have been a straight fight been her and eventual winner Billie Piper as the only two genuinely luminous performances that season – it was a perfect study of a couple whose relationship is doomed because Freddie cannot begin to match Hester’s consuming love.
In Love in Idleness the tragedy is that the central couple – Olivia and Sir John – are perfectly matched but another kind of love, that for her son Michael, challenges the sustainability of their relationship. At the start of the play dentist’s widow Olivia Brown is ensconced as the mistress of Sir John in a well-to-do apartment, but far from ‘living in sin’ the couple are respectably accepted by society and Olivia is wife in all but name. Into this domestic idyll comes her son Michael, back from school in Canada, who resents his mother’s change of circumstances and is even more disgusted to learn she is involved with Sir John, a cabinet member of whom Michael disapproves. During the course of four acts this left-leaning young man attempts to come between them, by shaming his mother and restoring her mere parental role in his life.
Trevor Nunn, whose production of Flare Path reignited our passion for Rattigan, takes a traditional approach to staging this early comedy but mixes an earlier draft of the play with what later became Love in Idleness. The result is a comic battle not just between son and lover, but also between high society ideals, consumerism and the love of life’s comforts, and the socialist enthusiasm of youth as Michael battles against a “business-as-usual” post-war future. Although it takes about 15 minutes to get going, these concepts are well handled in Nunn’s interpretation, and once the production is on its feet, it is entertaining and engaging throughout its 2 hr and 45-minute run time.
I have to confess to an initial bout of dispirit as the curtain went up to reveal yet another 1940s-middle class drawing room set with lovely sofas for which the phrase ‘elegantly appointed’ was designed. And while I don’t subscribe to the idea that the content of Rattigan or even Noel Coward’s plays are dated, sometimes the staging can give that impression – although the National neatly overcame that problem last year. We are spoiled in London by the funds and freedom to innovate, but directors like Ivo van Hove and Jaime Lloyd are throwing out the rule book on staging the classics, so how fascinating would it be to see a stripped back version of these plays – no cornices, no rugs and absolutely no artfully arranged furniture – just the pure emotional drive of the text itself and the excellence of the actors in bringing it to life.
However, Rattigan’s writing is far too clever to be oppressed by the set, designed by Stephen Brimson-Lewis, and as the production wears on you see the story and its themes fight successfully against the underwhelming presentation; here we have ideas about how closely big business should be involved in government, a situation played out daily in American politics, there are ideas about defining middle age and its expectations, of changing attitudes to sex and marriage, of different kinds of families emerging, of young people trying to understand the world and find their place in it, and the ongoing effects of war on everyday society. These things trouble us as much now as they did in the 1940s and it is this that makes Rattigan’s work so relevant – because human behaviour doesn’t change, people still need to find and cling to the people they love, and that will always come at a cost.
Rattigan wrote female characters so well and in the lead role Eve Best skilfully explores the mixture of contradictions, pride and parental affection that make-up Olivia Brown. Her first appearance in party-planning mode is almost overwhelming as she trills enthusiastically on the telephone and seems persuasively in command of everyone around her. At this pitch, she would be unbearable if the whole play was the same, but the arrival of Olivia’s son gives Best a chance to explore the ways in which this challenges her happy life, as she charts the genuinely touching demise of Olivia’s hopes.
In some ways, she’s a character who lives on the surface, at one point openly admitting that her love for John is also bound-up with the trappings and comforts of the life he offers, but, crucially, Rattigan wants us to see that this love is no less valid and brings her a happiness and contentment she has never known before. Best conveys all of this superbly moving effortlessly between a woman who cannot keep up with the intellectual pursuits of her menfolk, and one resignedly broken by the decisions she is forced to make, sacrificing herself for others. The scene in which she begins determined to make one decision and ends up making quite another is flooring in its raw and unexpected emotion, and Best is superb in showing the audience the cost in that moment.
Anthony Head as the Canadian businessman-turned-politician may have a variable accent (sometimes Canadian, sometimes Irish) but he brings a gravitas to the role which makes him a suitably commanding figure. Challenged, but not threatened, by the arrival of Michael, John bites his tongue frequently and Head conveys the awkwardness of being around someone with whom he has nothing in common but must “play nice” for the sake of his relationship. The scenes in which he and Michael let loose over politics are among the best and most comedic, as two unlikely opponents square-off against each other. While the depth of Sir John’s feelings for Olivia were always clear, they are genuinely touching in the final act as the extent of his actions is revealed.
In the slightly more difficult role of surly teenager, Edward Bluemel has to blend lots of purposely exaggerated huffing and puffing – accused in the text of giving his Hamlet – with a little boy lost routine that sees his cherished memories of his childhood slowly dismantled over the course of the play. And to all this Bluemel adds the self-conscious arrogance of politicised youth that seems so certain and so naïve at the same time. It’s a great comic performance that gives way to occasional moments of almost hysterical feeling as Michael goes through the awkward process of seeing and accepting Olivia as someone other than just his mother, and having to entirely reconfigure his relationship with her.
Although Love in Idleness may look like another tired old drama about rich people living in shabby gentility, don’t let that deter you from seeing it. Rattigan’s writing about the complexities of the human heart and the pain it causes us, is still incredibly poignant. Although not his best play, many of the themes that recur in his work germinate here as his characters struggle to find their place, trapped between a national and personal past and future. As Olivia faces an impossible dilemma between lover and son, she might make you think about our own mothers and the unreasonable demands that grown-up children make of them, asking them to stay just our we want them instead of who they really are.
Love in Idleness is at the Apollo Theatre until 1 July. Tickets start at £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1