Sunday, 2 April 2017

Theatre review: Love in Idleness

It's hard to review any show with Eve Best in it and know for sure how good the play itself is. I suspect Love in Idleness is a pretty mediocre play by Terence Rattigan's standards - which still puts it above most, admittedly - but Best's presence elevates it to a thing of pure joy. She plays Olivia, a poor widow whose son was evacuated during World War II and has been living in Canada for the last four years. The War is nearing its end and Michael (Edward Bluemel,) now nearly 18, is returning to London, meaning his mother has to find a way to tell him something she's been putting off: She's been living with a wealthy Canadian industrialist who's also serving as Churchill's cabinet minister for tanks. Sir John Fletcher (Anthony Head) is still married but has separated from his wife and is only holding off on a divorce to spare the Government a scandal; he's promised to marry Olivia once the war is over.

In typical teenage fashion, Michael becomes possessive of his mother and hostile to his new stepfather, but especially so because he's become a Socialist while in Canada, where Sir John had come to represent everything his group despised.

Trevor Nunn directs his own version of the play, apparently put together out of two distinct versions Rattigan wrote, one more overtly political, the other more comic. This would seem to explain why, though never dull, Love in Idleness feels a bit confused, with its comedy varying from scene to scene from witty wordplay to something more farcical, and some abrupt tonal changes into something more serious. I don't know if this is also why Rattigan comes across at his most reactionary (a term often levelled at Sir John) and less sympathetic than usual here: Although everyone is fair game to be laughed at, the young left-winger is egregiously selfish, and his principles pretty easy to buy off.

But as it stands in this version Love in Idleness still skews more heavily towards the comedy of manners than the political, and whether it's Olivia's enthusiastic embracing of her new life as a society lady, Michael's deliberately playing out Hamlet in his teenage strops - a ploy that might have been more successful if Olivia and Sir John hadn't immediately figured out what he was doing - or the complications when he meets Sir John's soon-to-be-ex-wife (Helen George) and falls for her himself, this does have a lot of charm and wit.

Inevitably, though, Best was my favourite thing about the production, right from the start as she phones around trying to get guests for her dinner party, chuckling with a glee that's addictive. In a fairly old-fashioned parlour piece like this it's more apparent than at somewhere like the Globe, that Best is a particularly Brechtian kind of actor who never loses herself into a character; she creates a person that feels real but she's always present herself lending a twinkle in the eye and the suggestion she might corpse at any moment, that welcomes the audience in. A bit like Mark Rylance, I think she gives performances almost nobody else could get away with, and this is a great vehicle for her. Like most Trevor Nunn productions, this plods on a bit longer than it really needs to but you're happy to spend the extra time with Eve Best.

Love in Idleness by Terence Rattigan is booking until the 29th of April at the Menier Chocolate Factory (returns only) and from the 11th of May to the 1st of July at the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore, Tristram Kenton.

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