This is Terence Rattigan's centenary year, so London will be hosting a number of productions of his plays. After the successful rediscovery of his AFTER THE DANCE at the National last year, producers and directors are looking to the works that have seldom been revived rather than the staples (THE DEEP BLUE SEA, THE WINSLOW BOY, THE BROWNING VERSION, SEPARATE TABLES). So in the next month we shall have starry major revivals of the rarely seen FLARE PATH and CAUSE CELEBRE. This month the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre is offering a 1944 play that was never produced in its original form, LESS THAN KIND. The play was picked up be the leading acting couple of its day, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and they insisted on so many changes that Rattigan changed the title to LOVE IN IDLENESS. Only one copy of the original LESS THAN KIND exists -- the one that was sent to the Lord Chamberlain's office for approval (pre-1967 plays were censored by that office). This production of LESS THAN KIND has received critical raves and is enjoying a sold out run.
The title comes from Hamlet's pun to his uncle-stepfather Claudus ("A little more than kin and less than kind"). Rattigan's play is an entertaining update of the Hamlet story. After being sent to Canada during the war, a teenage boy returns to London to find his widowed mother lavishly supported by a millionaire industrialist who is a wartime cabinet minister. The son is a passionate liberal who despises Sir John's Tory politics and a prig who disapproves of his mother's liaison and her newfound love of wealth and social position. The son does everything he can to manipulate his mother to leave the man and the life she now leads.
There's a lot of Rattigan's own ambivalence in LESS THAN KIND. Like the son, he leaned toward leftist politics but loved his life of affluence and, like Noel Coward, he was considered a voice of the establishment. Like the son, he had to deal with parents who were living a less than moral life -- in Rattigan's case it was the father who was living outside the morality of the time. Rattigan's childhood was spent in the diplomatic class. Though Rattigan was only in his early thirties when he wrote LESS THAN KIND, the play's sympathies are with the older generation. The irony is that the son is the moralistic one and his elders are much more pragmatic about their appetites and desires.
The play's sexual politics will enrage any feminist -- women in this play are silly creatures -- but the mother at least knows that her current life as an affluent socialite attached to a powerful man she loves is far better than the genteel poverty she endured with her previous husband. No one in her circle seems to disapprove of her relationship with Lord John. Yet she is easy prey for her son's puerile tactics. In this production, the most sympathetic character was the mother's lover, Lord John, played acerbically by Michael Simkins. Simkins captured John's hauteur, his temper but also his sense of irony. The tricky balance in the play is to make the son funny and a bit endearing rather than a priggish brat. Here I think David Osmond was directed to be too much Hamlet and too little the pivotal character in a sophisticated comedy. In the Freudian age in which the play was written, the son's dsapproval has nothing to do with his feelings for his late father, when he never mentions. He is suffering instead from an Oedipal complex -- he wants to be the only man in his mother's life. Sara Crowe was charming and at times touching as the mother who tries to please both son and lover and Caroline Head played Sir John's wayward ex-wife as if she just stepped out of a good British comic film of the period.
As always, one could only admire Rattigan's theatrical mastery -- his genius at plotting and his witty, but always credible dialogue. The Rattigan year is off to a good start.
LESS THAN KIND by Terence Rattigan, directed by Adrian Brown. Jermyn Street Theatre. February 5, 2011.