Sue Holderness and William Gaminara star in Adrian Brown’s production of a newly rediscovered comedic gem by acclaimed 20th century playwright Terence Rattigan.
In wartime London, widow Olivia Brown is overjoyed by the news that her son, 17-year-old Michael, has returned from Canada after an absence of five years. However, the situation is complicated by Olivia’s ongoing affair with steel magnate and Cabinet minister Sir John Fletcher, whose government post makes it impossible for him to divorce his wife until the end of the war. Michael, who has become an idealistic young socialist, is horrified to discover that his mother is ‘living in sin’ with a man who represents everything he abhors, but despite the tension the atmosphere is one of light-hearted and well-crafted social comedy.
Less Than Kind was written in 1944, but was substantially altered before being performed under a different title and widely disparaged by critics. Last year it was staged in its original form for the first time ever by Planet Theatre as a touring production directed by Rattigan’s friend Adrian Brown. Now Brown’s production is back, with Sara Crowe and Michael Simkins replaced by Holderness (known for her performance on Only Fools and Horses) and Gaminara (of Silent Witness fame) in the leading roles. Both give admirable performances; Holderness is superficially charming and cynical but also reveals the depth of Olivia’s character, while Gaminara’s portrayal of John is both sympathetic and hilarious, and the two together are highly entertaining. However, the real comedy lies in Olivia’s relationship with Michael, played by David Osmond. In particular, Michael’s recasting of his ‘poor old Mum’ as a helpless victim in spite of her protestations to the contrary, and his subsequent Hamlet-esque delusions about her relationship with John, were among the highlights of a production that frequently caused its audience to laugh out loud.
Nowadays Rattigan (1911-1977) is perhaps best known for his 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea, which in 2011 was adapted into a film starring Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston. The contrast between the dark comedy and emotional intensity of the later play and the altogether gentler wit of Less Than Kind demonstrates Rattigan’s versatility as a playwright, but both display his gift for believable dialogue punctuated by snappy one-liners and the perfect timing that creates hilarious moments of dramatic irony. Also deserving of praise are Greca Redwood-Jones’ set design and Howard Hudson’s lighting, which greatly added to the overall impression that this apparently comfortable world is actually in the midst of a terrible war. More than once smoke and searchlights were visible through a gap in the ceiling of Olivia’s glamorous flat while air raid sirens blared from offstage, resulting in a production that was firmly grounded in its historical setting while at the same time not being overwhelmed by it. Occasionally the balance tips slightly too far, most obviously in the sometimes lengthy airing of John and Michael’s political differences, which 70 years on no longer have the same immediacy or relevance as when the play was first written, but this should not inhibit audiences’ enjoyment too much when the general themes are so universal.
Because of its previous success, Less Than Kind will follow its run at the Oxford Playhouse with performances at theatres across the country, including Salisbury, Brighton, Richmond, York, Cheltenham, and Aylesbury. More information can be found on Planet Theatre’s website – http://www.planettheatreproductions.com.