Here’s a snipper of the review by Donald Hutera in The Times for “Variation of a Theme” at the Finborough Theatre.
“Here’s a rarity, and an oddity, in one elegantly febrile little package. Michael Oakley’s staging of Terence Rattigan’s 1958 play is being touted as the first full production since its West End premiere. Back then it was directed by John Gielgud, starred Margaret Leighton and Jeremy Brett, and closed after just 132 performances. Why?… ” Full review online here.
Less Than Kind, Salisbury Playhouse
UNPERFORMED since Terence Rattigan wrote it in 1944, this is an interesting revival of his “lost” play Less Than Kind.
Convincingly set in wartime London, Canadian steel magnate John Fletcher (superbly played by William Gaminara from BBC TV’s Silent Witness) is a wealthy industrialist and member of the Tory wartime cabinet.
He lives with his lover Olivia Brown (stylishly performed by Sue Holderness from TV’s Only Fools And Horses) in relaxed comfort with maids and secretaries.
However, Olivia’s teenage son Michael (a smoothly spiky portrayal by Charlie Hamblett) returns home from evacuation with a passionate left-wing philosophy and a deep hatred for everything that his mother’s lover stands for.
Does his mother choose her lover or her son?
With tenuous links to Shakespeare’s Hamlet – “less than kind” is a quote from that play’s opening – this is a thoughtprovoking drama mixed with romantic comedy.
Wartime London is immediately evoked with explosions, searchlights and all-clear sirens, reinforced with convincing 1940s costumes and language – “What a corking idea!”
The stage set is a masterpiece of atmospheric detail, and the play’s themes are as relevant today as when Rattigan created the piece – a desire for a more equal society with “fair shares for all” and a secure welfare state, polarised by established privilege and selfcentredness.
Less Than Kind runs until Saturday.
While “French Without Tears” continues to be revived in England, it has yet to make an impression on this side of the Atlantic. The 1937 Broadway transfer got decent reviews but closed after an undistinguished three-month run, and the subsequent 1940 film version (which starred Ray Milland) is known only to historians of British cinema. So far as I know, “French Without Tears” hasn’t been produced by any professional theater company in America since its original Broadway run.
That’s why I went up to Canada’s Shaw Festival to see that company’s ultra rare revival. Could the author of “The Deep Blue Sea” and “Separate Tables” really have known how to split the sides of a matinee crowd? The answer—as one of Mr. Rattigan’s more decorous characters might have put it—is decidedly in the affirmative. Not only is “French Without Tears” as funny as anything by Noël Coward or Alan Ayckbourn, but Kate Lynch’s staging is as good as it could possibly be.
“French Without Tears” unfolds in the living room of Miramar, a French boardinghouse that caters to English tourists who want to brush up their French in a cozy seaside setting. Most of its patrons are fresh out of school and headed for business or diplomatic careers. (Fans of the English novelist Anthony Powell, who knew Mr. Rattigan in the ’30s and probably saw “French Without Tears” on the West End, will recall that a similar establishment figures prominently in the first installment of “A Dance to the Music of Time.”) Seeing as how the residents of Miramar include a like number of eligible young men and attractive young women, it stands to reason that high jinks will ensue. So they do, especially when Diana Lake (Robin Evan Willis), a vampy man-teaser, arrives on the scene with the intention of making a minimum of love and a maximum of mischief. Not even P.G. Wodehouse could have cooked up a twistier plot.
French Without Tears
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
($45-$90), 800-511-7429, closes Sept. 15
Part of what makes “French Without Tears” so interesting is that for all the play’s fetching frivolity, Mr. Rattigan’s characters are neither as simple nor carefree as they look. His “sophisticated” young gentlemen in particular are sexually naive almost-boys who are all too obviously afraid of women. Even the Hon. Alan Howard (pitch-perfectly played by Ben Sanders), who purports to be the very model of a suave intellectual, is defenseless in the face of a full-court press by the scheming Diana. Moreover, they—and we—are well aware that Europe is on the verge of turning itself upside down, and our consciousness of the coming collapse of the old order that spawned Mr. Rattigan’s characters lends a sharp tang of melancholy to their lunatic cavorting.
Ms. Lynch knows how to wring every laugh out of a script, and the performances of her ensemble cast are without exception both fresh and felt. The long-legged Ms. Willis is hell on a stick, while Julie Martell manages to make something lovely and true out of the potentially ungrateful role of Jacqueline, the good-egg type who longs in vain for Kit (Wade Bogert-O’Brien). William Schmuck’s set is a minor masterpiece of naturalistic detail.
Why on earth should so delicious a play have failed to divert American audiences? Perhaps the problem is that a few of the jokes arise from the widely varying linguistic capacities of the English-speaking characters, one of whom speaks severely fractured French. (Among other things, this benighted soul suffers from the delusion that the French equivalent of “She has ideas above her station” is “Elle a des idées au-dessus de sa gare.“) Fortunately, Mr. Rattigan took great and skillful care to ensure that all but one or two of the bilingual punch lines in “French Without Tears” will make sense to monoglot viewers.
This was my first visit to the Shaw Festival, on two of whose other current productions I’ll report next week. For now, suffice it to say that the small town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is a most agreeable place to see shows, and that the handsome 328-seat Royal George Theatre, which began life as a gilded vaudeville house, is an ideal venue for a show as charming as “French Without Tears.”
So…why not Broadway? We could stand to see a smart, classy British comedy in New York this season. Or next season. Or pretty much any old time.