Back in June I was enthusiastic about the National Theatre's revival of Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea, with Helen McCrory as Hester Collyer. Now I'm even more enthusiastic about the Arcola's production of the autobiographical play that Rattigan might have written if the taboos of the mid-20th century had allowed him to.
Mike Poulton's Kenny Morgan uses the structure and the characters of Rattigan's fictionalised drama to create a play that in some respects is actually better than the original. Competing with Rattigan is a tough ask for anyone, but Poulton is an expert hand at adaptation, having created stage versions not only of The Canterbury Tales but also of Wolf Hall. I understand why he's reluctant to use the word adaptation about this play, and it's certainly much more than a reheated version of Rattigan, but I give him huge credit for his creative borrowing from the original.
Kenny Morgan was a young actor who was Rattigan's unacknowledged lover and partner for several years, before leaving him for someone else. Abandoned in his turn, he committed suicide in front of a gas fire. Rattigan, writing at a time when homosexuality was illegal, as was suicide, changed Kenny into a woman and himself into a high court judge. In Poulton's play these two characters are faultlessly played by Paul Keating and Simon Dutton, both superbly cast. Alec Lennox, Morgan's bisexual lover, is played by Pierro Niel-Mee and the mysterious ex-doctor Ritter by George Irving. They're all excellent, and so are Matthew Bulgo, Marlene Sidaway and Lowenna Melrose as the helpful neighbour, the nosy landlady and the girl with whom Alec has a quick fling while Kenny's back is turned.
The direction by Lucy Bailey is meticulous, restrained and pitch-perfect. I have to confess that came as a surprise to me as I have vivid memories of her over-the-top versions of Titus Andronicus and Macbeth at Shakespeare's Globe a few years ago. The design by Robert Innes Hopkins is also simple and restrained, using the Arcola theatre's tiny stage to create a claustrophobic and squalid late 1940s interior in which the characters are imprisoned by gas pipes.
Leaving aside the terrific performances, the sensitive direction and the intimacy of the set, I want to explore briefly how I think Poulton's play improves on Rattigan. Firstly, it develops the minor characters, particularly Ritter the doctor, whose Jewishness becomes another painful faultline dividing him from the other characters. The housekeeper Mrs Simpson (no, she's no relation to THAT Mrs Simpson) becomes a real person rather than a cliche, and so does the kindly neighbour Dafydd Lloyd.
One of the flaws in Rattigan's play is that it fails to explain what holds Hester back from returning to a comfortable life with her ex-husband when her lover walks out. She doesn't seem to have a clear motive for saying no to his generous appeals to come back. Poulton's reworking of the story into a gay love triangle not only restores the historical truth, but more importantly, gives Kenny a clear reason for his reluctance to return to the swanky surroundings of Rattigan's flat in Albany. Rattigan's public life and his private life are separated by an impenetrable firewall, and he tells Kenny firmly that his own flat will still be out of bounds -- just in case the playwright's mother comes to call. Kenny will have to return to his former role as what he bitterly calls a 'collectible' in a smaller flat elsewhere in the building. It's the thought of being 'locked away in the attic' that he cannot bear. Rattigan's tamer heterosexual version of the story seems to me much weaker; Hester, if she returned to her husband, would not risk being locked away in any attic. But we shouldn't blame Rattigan for conforming to the harsh reality of the Lord Chamberlain's censorship.
I've been to see quite a few plays at the Arcola, some good, some indifferent and some in between, but this one is probably the best I have seen. Now on its second run, it is deservedly selling out. I expect in future years theatres will start to programme The Deep Blue Sea and Kenny Morgan together, with a single cast.