“There’s no situation in the world that can’t be passed off with small-talk”
Overlord of all that is authentic in British theatre, Trevor Nunn is now further redefining authenticity by presenting us with a Terence Rattigan premiere, cobbled together from two pre-existing versions of the same play. Love in Idleness was originally known as Less Than Kind (which itself was seen at the Jermyn Street back in 2011) but was rewritten at the behest of its stars, a commercially minded decision which proved fatal to Rattigan’s reputation. And rather than choose one or the other, Nunn has fashioned something new (but assumably still authentic), named for the later version.
Sadly, that sense of compromise lingers strongly here. Fans of Rattigan were utterly spoiled by pitch-perfect interpretations of After the Dance and Flare Path (also by Nunn) at the beginning of this decade and again last year with an excoriating The Deep Blue Sea, so knowing the emotional force with which he can devastate us can only leave you disappointed at the tonally strange and inconsequential comedy of sorts with which we’re presented here. Only the long-awaited return of the marvellous Eve Best to the London stage imbues the evening with the quality it scarcely deserves.
The plot is a trifle – set towards the end of the Second World War, precocious 18 year old Michael Brown returns from evacuation to Canada appalled to find his mother Olivia contentedly shacked up with a government minister. Never mind the fact that she’s a widow and he’s unhappily married, the newly politically aware kid is determined to break the match. But though I did enjoy Less Than Kind on first viewing, Love in Idleness gets stranded in the shallower waters in which it paddles, ditching any substantive sense of the wartime setting (beyond newsreel footage played in scene changes) and late-arriving farcical shenanigans further disturbing the potential for emotional profundity.
What there is comes from Best’s superlative work as Olivia, deepening and softening a character to whom our sympathies might not necessarily be naturally drawn. Palpable chemistry with Anthony Head as Sir John Fletcher makes theirs a relationship you invest in, and careful work from Helen George as his brittle estranged wife offers another intelligently drawn (if brief) female role. But Edward Bluemel’s brattish Michael can’t quite locate similar depths and over a lengthy running time (quelle surprise), Nunn does little to convince that this is a lost classic that has been Frankensteined into inauthentic existence here.