Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Theatre review: The Art of Concealment

Last year, Terence Rattigan's centenary brought some high-profile revivals and a reappraisal of the playwright's work. This year we get The Art of Concealment, a look at the man himself. Though I've enjoyed Rattigan's plays, it was more the prospect of Dominic Tighe as the younger Terry who attracted me to the show, than the biographical aspect. And writer Giles Cole falls into a couple of major traps associated with biographical plays, most obviously in trying to tell the whole life story in a couple of hours, rather than concentrating on a couple of key incidents or relationships. So we join Rattigan at Harrow before jumping to his dropping out of Oxford and his career taking off just before the War. After the interval we have his drop in popularity after the attacks by the Kitchen Sink playwrights of the 1960s. In a rather old-fashioned narrative, the story is told though the reminiscences of the older Rattigan (Alistair Findlay,) who occasionally limps onto the stage to take us to the next chapter, and swaps places with Tighe once we get to the playwright's latter years.

Tighe is suitably sexy and charming as the young Terry but in trying to get the facts crammed in he's given a clunky, exposition-heavy script to try and bring to life. Most of the supporting cast is solid if unspectacular (though Christopher Morgan's over-gesticulating Cuthbert got old fast) but some of the dialogue just crashes to the ground - at one point we actually have it pointed out that Rattigan's musings on one of his characters are in fact a reflection on himself. (In what I think is another classic mistake, we see Rattigan and his then-lover Kenneth (Daniel Bayle) act out a scene from The Browning Version, which is only ever going to make the play's own dialogue pale in comparison.)

Rattigan went to great pains to conceal his sexuality from the public, and though this forms a major part of this story it's also treated with a similar coyness: It's just as well Tighe looks good in costumes that include a tux and an RAF uniform, as you won't see him out of them. Charlie Hollway as his younger American lover is the only one who manages to briefly bring some sexuality into Knight Mantell's clinical production. (Though I would have found Hollway sexier if his hairdo for this show didn't appear to be modelled on my mum's.) Similarly, when the playwright is confronted by Aunt Edna (Judy Buxton,) an imaginary representation of his dwindling fanbase, she concludes he brought on his own downfall by continuing to party in the post-war austerity years. But these constant parties were only ever alluded to, the only social life we've actually seen has mainly involved his small coterie of already-bitter queens. Ultimately the title is a bit too apt, The Art of Concealment doesn't reveal much about its subject.

The Art of Concealment by Giles Cole is booking until the 28th of January at Jermyn Street Theatre (returns only.)

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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