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The Art of Concealment: The Life of Terence Rattigan

Down at the bottom of the deep blue sea ...

  
Last year you couldn’t move for Rattigan.  The Old Vic revived his last play, Cause Célèbre, Chichester revived The Browning Version while Terence Davies gave us Rachel Weisz in a new screen adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea. 
 
However, it was not ever thus.  Once the ‘prettiest playwright in London’, Rattigan had a string of hits in the 40s and 50s, but the realist ‘kitchen sink’ movement, lead by John Osborne and Arnold Wesker, soon saw him out of favour.
 
Starting at his early days at Harrow and ending with the first night of Cause Célèbre in 1977, The Art of Concealment follows the well trod path of biographical plays.  Narrated by the older Terry (Alistair Findlay who, although bearing a passing resemblance to Rattigan, looks more like David Hare), the play follows a linear path through lives, loves and glittering first nights.  Giles Cole’s factual script has the odd flourish, with the older and younger Rattigan (a definitely pretty Dominic Tighe) conversing – a technique used to better effect in Stoppard’s The Invention of Love – and a late dialogue between Terry and ‘Aunt Edna’ (Judy Buxton), the personification of his audience.  It was a shame not to see more of this character - the device itself gave the script a much needed late burst of energy.
 
Tighe’s young Rattigan looks the part, and, if he lacks the intellectual conviction of his older counterpart, he captures the younger playwright’s cocksure belief in himself and maintains a steely determination to keep his sexuality hidden, especially from his mother, the redoubtable ‘Mrs R’.  Judy Buxton does a fine job of doubling mama with Aunt Edna, while Graham Pountney’s turn as both Rattigan père and an old queen of a director is a joy in itself.  Charlie Holloway also impresses as Rattigan’s long-term partner Michael Franklin (or ‘Midget’), petulant and charming in equal measure.
 
Knight Mantell’s direction and Meg Witts’ design are both sadly literal which in turn holds back the performances.  While the dialogue never really takes flight, there are one or two choice lines which feel lost against the drab production and important details are lost in a mire of biographical titbits which, at times, feel like a smug mathematician showing his working. 
 
Rattigan’s life is worth exploring.  He was the playwright who came in from the cold, but sadly this production lacks the flair of the great man himself.  This one’s not quite a cause worth celebrating.
 
3*
  
The Art of Concealment is at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London until 28th January

Words: Dan Usztan
Photo: Dominic Tighe as Terence Rattigan

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