REVIEW: Love In Idleness. Apollo Theatre ✭✭✭

Love In idleness at the Apollo Theatre
Eve Best (Olivia Brown) and Anthony Head (Sir John Fletcher). Photo: Catherine Ashmore

Love In Idleness
Apollo Theatre
18th May 2017
3 Stars
Book Tickets

Recently, there has been a spate of interest in Terence Rattigan’s masterpiece, ‘The Deep Blue Sea’, with high-profile revivals, a new film, and even a brilliant new play, Mike Poulton’s, ‘Kenny’, based on both the real events that suggested it and also on the meticulously crafted drama that arose from their ashes.  So it was probably only a matter of time before someone got around to wheeling out his collection of sketches for the later, much more fully realised and successful play, the work that is known by a peculiar reference to Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that now finds itself upgrading from the Menier Chocolate Factory in this show relocation to Shaftesbury Avenue.

Promoted – in Bob King’s carefully arranged graphic design – as a three-hander between a young man, Michael Brown, a woman in the prime of life, Olivia Brown, and an older man, Sir John Fletcher, the play offers a simple story of the applecart of an adulterous liaison being upset by the return, after years of absence, of the lady’s now much more grown-up and troublesome son.  The fact that the older (married) lover is also a minister in Churchill’s war cabinet, and his amour an efficiently skilled socialite, makes the ease with which their arrangement is disrupted by a callow 17-year old returnee from Canadian evacuation stand up to no more than passing scrutiny.  But this is only the first and foremost of literally dozens of weaknesses in the script.  The thing is a veritable box of tricks, assembled perhaps in some haste by the usually much more careful Rattigan, where every page or two we get a new style, a new ‘influence’ (or borrowing).  In the world of light West End entertainment, it could be claimed that such quibbles don’t matter.  But that is only true if nothing else about the play matters, either.  And, if that is so, then why put it on?

Book tickets for Love In Idleness at Apollo Theatre
Eve Best (Olivia Brown), Anthony Head (Sir John Fletcher) and in background Edward Bluemel (Michael Brown). Photo: Catherine Ashmore

Well, I think I know the answer to that one.  It gives full reign to three gifted actors to show off what they can do.  In the case of the men, a charismatic, attractively shaped juvenile lead gets the chance to strut his imperiously ephebian stuff, and a more dignified counter-balance is laid on by a grey-haired character actor, who reminds us that in affairs of the heart at any rate experience counts for a heck of a lot more than any amount of youthful impetuousness and sulks.  In between these two boldly drawn poles, the lady in question, being pulled this way and that like some oedipal marionette by the mechanics of the plot, has two options open to her: either she attempts the impossible and tries to synthesise some sort of coherent ‘characterisation’ out of the bibs and bobs provided for her in the ‘part’ constructed by the writer, or – and this is what happens here – she is a strong personality with a loyal and devoted following who can be relied upon, though force of will-power alone, to ride roughshod over the innumerable contradictions and non-sequiturs cast in her path by the nodding scribe, and blaze a trail through to the finishing line, making the audience believe they haven’t entirely wasted the price of the ticket.

In which circumstances, thank heavens for this cast.  The boy is done energetically well by newcomer with abundant floppy hair, Edward Bluemel, the senior gentleman is rendered with superlative skill by expert patrician Anthony Head, and the woman who must struggle between them – if you will pardon the expression – is none other than Eve Best, who here delivers a textbook example of how a cast iron ‘turn’ can salvage a play from oblivion.  In awe of the sheer determination of these three to see that their professionalism should triumph over the author’s deficiency in that area, the audience upon conclusion of the four roomy (in every sense of the word) scenes that comprise this narrative leapt to its feet – no, not in eagerness to catch its trains home but in honest admiration of the achievement they had just witnessed: the transubstantiation of a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

Book tickets to Love In Idleness
Eve Best (Olivia Brown) and Edward Bluemel (Michael Brown). Photo: Catherine Ashmore

In this titanic endeavour, the players are ably aided and abetted by one of the most experienced directors in the country: Trevor Nunn.  Few people can know more than he about how to conceal the flaws in construction, errors in psychology, mistakes in register, the tinny rattle of unfinished dialogue or the lackadaisical abandonment of logic that clutter this script like heaped piles of the rubble of bombed out earlier drafts.  The first few pages aren’t too bad, very Noel Coward in manner, with just a hint of Somerset Maugham.  With the entrance of the young man, however, we lurch into Graham Greene sub-Freudian territory, a clunking ‘riff’ on ‘Hamlet’, and the scenery – stolidly built to po-faced plans by Stephen Brimson Lewis – veritably begins to wobble in front of our eyes.  With audible creaks, we start lurching into John Drinkwater country, and then get transported to a film set by Powell and Pressburger, or is it Basil Dearden.  And we wonder: why?

Terence Rattigan's Love In Idless at the Apollo Theatre
Edward Bluemel (Michael Brown) and Anthony Head (Sir John Fletcher). Photo: Catherine Ashmore

Never mind.  Lewis allows Miss Best to look ravishing at all times, in a series of exquisite frocks, although he trumps all designs by plunging her into an extreme Googie Withers ‘verite’ look for the final tableau.  Nevertheless, she always outshines the more over-dressed competition: Charlotte Spencer as the airhead Diana Fletcher (the gold-digger spouse of her lover), or Nicola Sloane as the garishly accoutered Miss Wentworth.  Sloane and Vivienne Rochester also get to play – briefly – two other women in the Fletcher household, the maid Polton and the secretary Miss Dell, both parts carelessly under-written and thrown away by an author evidently only concerned with giving as much stage time as possible to his stars.

While that is happening, Paul Pyant makes sure the lights go on – and off – at appropriate times; Gregory Clarke ensures we hear a radio and, at the start of the show and during scene changes, a booming newsreel; and Duncan Mclean serves up said cinema footage to try and lend credibility to what happens between-times.  It all looks very handsome – even the prison walls that seem to surround the barely adorned sober interior of Sir John’s house.  If you feel you must add this to your list of rediscoveries of justly obscure and forgotten plays, then at least it won’t hurt you – visually – to pay a call.

Whatever you do, please do not dwell on the fact that there are lots and lots of much better plays that could have been chosen, and had all these resources devoted to them, and weren’t.  If you wish to enquire as to why this happened, please address all such correspondence to the producers.


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