Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Mike Poulton takes us to London a few years after World War II for Kenny Morgan. The titular Kenny (Paul Keating) was an actor and lover of Terence Rattigan, but by the time we meet him in 1949 his career had stalled and he'd given up his life of comfort with the older playwright who was at that point at the height of his fame, moving into the damp flat of his new, younger lover. But life with Alec (Pierro Niel-Mee) clearly didn't have an upside, as the play opens with Kenny attempting suicide in front of the gas fire. The smell of gas alerts his neighbours, who save him in time; not wanting to alert the police they instead call the first name in Kenny's address book: Rattigan (Simon Dutton.)
Still in love with Kenny, Rattigan offers to take him back, but his and the neighbours' attempts to keep him alive have to go up against his despair that Alec will never love him back.
There's a dark sense of humour to Robert Innes Hopkins' set design of the grubby flat, the pillars holding up the ceiling made of the gas pipes that Kenny uses in his suicide attempts. There's also some lighter moments in the script but largely Kenny Morgan is a respectful look at a despair that overlooks the support it's offered in favour of the hopeless cause; and particularly at how fragile any respite from depression can be.
The play's strength is in its well-drawn characters, not just Keating's broken Kenny and Dutton's amiably ineffectual Rattigan, but in the supporting cast of other residents of the house - George Irving's struck-off Austrian doctor Mr Ritter is a blunt voice of reason, essentially kind but unfailingly no-nonsense; Matthew Bulgo's Dafydd is the likeable voice of the ordinary man who doesn't understand people who live with that kind of drama; and Marlene Sidaway's gleefully judgmental landlady Mrs Simpson doesn't see the contradiction in her own antisemitism and her pride at having "done her bit" in the War.
There's a real monstrous quality to the viciously selfish Alec, although we do discover at one point that he's still only a teenager, and I wonder if casting an actor who looked closer to that age would have cast a different light on his callousness. There's a bit too leisurely a pace to the lengthy way the story wraps up (director: Lucy Bailey) but there's a fascination for the characters and the time period that comes through in Poulton's writing (in way that wasn't there in, for example, Brenton's Lawrence After Arabia.) Particularly the easily-forgotten fact that suicide was, at that time, illegal, leading to the grotesque possibility that a failed attempt could land you in jail.
Kenny Morgan by Mike Poulton is booking until the 18th of June at Arcola Studio 1.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Idil Sukan.