The Two Sides of Terence

On the centenary of his birth, two Rattigan revivals showcase his best — and worst — work

Anne McElvoy

On the whole I take the view that Sienna Miller is a luxury I can afford to live without. A pointlessly perky Primrose Hill personage, she is sometimes famous for going out with Jude Law, and sometimes famous for not doing so. Otherwise she has barely troubled the dramatic Richter scale with her performances.

So imagine my reluctance to join the hordes of admirers to see Sienna in full Forties rig as Patricia, a doughty wartime actress torn between her brave pilot husband and dissolute Hollywood film star who wants her to revive their days of ardour. Not even the addition of Legally Blonde’s Sheridan Smith could sweeten the prospect.
In this centenary year of Terence Rattigan’s birth, Flare Path is a savvy choice for revival by Sir Trevor Nunn. Its hit quality was evident at the time, with a mixture of mordant wit about the business of flying deathly missions, and heartfelt emotion. It was, Churchill noted “a masterpiece of understatement,” adding, “But we are rather good at understatement, aren’t we?” 
Since then, the play has languished in the upper second tier of esteem, presumably on the grounds that we have grown too clever and worldly to be moved by a simple wartime drama about the tensions between love and duty.We spend much of the three hours at a drab Lincolnshire airbase, where Patricia (Miller) and Doris (Smith), wait for their men to return — or not — from the fierce early bombing raids on Germany. “We’re here for a do,” as Doris puts it squarely.
And what a do. The survival rate of the young men in Bomber Command in 1942 was less than half — a statistic that lurks in the background of the play’s taut action and accounts for the heightened mood of joy and fear, pulsing through Rattigan’s characters underneath the roar of the bombers taking off for Germany.
This being Britain, booze and a stiff upper lip are the weapons on the ground against fear, despair and erotic doubt. Patricia is an actress married to a salt of the earth pilot, but screwing up her courage to leave him.Doris is a cheery barmaid (imagine a better-looking Bet Lynch) recently wed to a bereaved Polish aristocrat-turned-pilot, a stranger in the host culture, bumping awkwardly into the English language.
Rattigan’s ear for the strained jollity of slang is unerring, but just as touching is the way physical gestures are most constrained at times of greatest pathos. Harry Hadden-Paton as Teddy gives a riveting performance as a man whose pride and stiff upper lip would probably now be diagnosed as early post-traumatic stress disorder.
As the cor blimey countess, Sheridan Smith is bewitching: funny and self-deprecating, even in her coded anxiety that her relationship will not outlast the war.
And yes, I admit it:  Miller is not half bad as the uptight English wife in the grip of an unsuitable passion, clutching elegantly at a cigarette as she learns, like Bogart in Casablanca, that our bonfires of the heart are not worth a hill of beans when the crazy world is in flames.
This tender archaeology of the human heart shows Rattigan at his best and Trevor Nunn’s assured and empathetic direction is fitting tribute to a master.

Over at the Old Vic, Thea Sharrock, garlanded for her haunting direction of Rattigan’s After the Dance last year, revives a work Rattigan wrote as a reprise of his themes and obsessions shortly before his death: Cause Célèbre.

It falls far short of his well-made plays at their best. Even a classy performance by Tommy McDonnell as the wily barrister and a luminous Anne-Marie Duff can’t make up for the shortcomings of a piece over-stuffed with themes and obsessions which work so well latently in Rattigan, but come across as a bit shouty and parodic as he gives them a last hurrah.
Interwoven with the court case of Alma Rattenbury, accused with her lover of the murder of her doddery husband, is the complex inner life of a juror, the uptight   Edith Davenport (Niamh Cusack), whose feelings about Alma channel her own frigidity and anxiety about her son’s burgeoning sexuality.
This must be the gayest play ever written about a straight ménage à trois, which is why it doesn’t quite ring true. Alma’s guilt about the seduction and preoccupation with who has the power balance in a relationship between lovers of different ages sounds more like the homosexual Rattigan chewing over the emotional involvements and compromises of his youth.
Duff is glorious as a sensual, self-absorbed hysteric, realising the enormity of her situation and proximity to the death penalty, but despite Sharrock’s nifty direction, the whole enterprise feels stilted. By the time the tragic denouement arrives, we’ve come to regard the characters as mouthpieces and the horror of capital punishment has dwindled into a vague will-they-won’t-they-cop-it curiosity.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was supposed to be this month’s light relief, your critic having soldiered through the war and the death penalty.Surely the proficient Kneehigh Theatre could do no wrong with flirty French romance, flouncy frocks, a love affair, dogged fate, inconstancy and the Algerian war?
Well, they did. The unforgettable 1964 film with Catherine Deneuve has rien to fear from this overhyped, collapsed soufflé of a production at the Gielgud.We Cherbourg aficionados know that the strength of the story is in its elevation of everyday life to the sublime when love strikes. The film duo could sing about spark plugs (and they do) and make it sound like poetry.  Here, Carly Bawden as Genevieve and Andrew Durand as Guy have so little chemistry they make every encounter sound like an MOT list.
You could feel cheery expectations in the theatre deflating as we charged on from one unfortunate rendition to the next. Here’s one to éviter comme la peste.

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