A landlady and one of her tenants detect gas coming from one of the rooms in the boarding house that she presides over in 1940’s Camden Town. Upon entering they discover a young man unconscious in front of the gas fire – apparently having attempted to end his own life. Reluctant to involve the authorities, they summon a contact from the unfortunate boy’s address book – a contact who just happens to be renowned playwright and personality Terrence Rattigan…
The events depicted in this solid slice of period drama are based upon true events. Author Mike Poulton has extrapolated from historical fact – Rattigan’s ten year on/off relationship with young actor Kenny Morgan, and the incident with the gas fire, inspired him to write The Deep Blue Sea – and constructed a possible version of the following day that intrigues and engages. By this point Morgan has separated from Rattigan and is living with a younger bisexual actor. Emotional interplay between the three key players in this triangle of love and lust makes for a studied exploration of desire, jealousy, and despair – at a time when being a gentleman of a ‘musical’ persuasion had not yet been legalised, let alone become publicly acceptable.
Paul Keating gives an assured performance as Morgan – a poignant portrait of a young man suffering from a depression that has yet to be understood. Simon Dutton brings Rattigan to life with skilful swagger, and the tempestuous relationship between the author and the actor is a fascinatingly fragile scaffold around which the narrative is strung. Their spiky, exploratory duologues are packed with pain and passion.
It’s the supporting cast, however, that really add colour and flare to this piece. An unforgettably glorious turn from Marlene Sideway as landlady Mrs Simpson is an hilarious highlight. Matthew Bulgo, as everyman neighbour Dafydd, quite unexpectedly steals the spotlight with an exhilaratingly refreshing monologue on what it is to be an unremarkable person, stood apart from the drama. And Pierro Niel-Mee is consummately unlikable as selfishly self-centred Alec Lennox – Morgan’s unreliable younger lover.
George Irving steals the show as Mr Ritter – another neighbour, and struck-off doctor – who does all in his power to assist the ailing Morgan. Irving’s underplayed and unyielding characterisation is a divine demonstration of savvy stagecraft. His final speech on the selfishness of self-pity is a pomposity-piercing masterpiece.
Set and costume are delightfully detailed and period precise. Lighting by Jack Knowles deserves singling out as an additional star of the show – sunlight pouring in through the apartment window during Act One, while a simple effect, is particularly evocative and expertly executed.
Kenny Morgan is a gently disturbing delicacy to be savoured, and, if you’re not familiar with the true story, one that will keep you guessing until the climax. A transportive meditation from an era that seems hauntingly familiar and cosily comforting, but is, in many ways, thankfully out of reach.
GT gives Kenny Morgan 4/5
Kenny Morgan runs at the Arcola Theatre until June 18th. For full details see: arcolatheatre.com