The recurring battle between artistic integrity and commercial success can sometimes be felt not only by the writer but actually in the work itself. Terrence Rattigan’s Love in Idleness was a rewrite of an earlier play Less Than Kind at the request of the acting duo The Lunts, and it removed much of the earlier play’s political content for a more agreeable audience experience. Less Than Kind wasn’t produced until 2011, and Love in Idleness has not been in London since the original. Trevor Nunn has now decided to weave the two plays together, in a so-called ‘world premiere’, and the blending of the two is accomplished with varying degrees of success. What’s clearest in the production is the internal clash as it oscillates from being a weighty Rattigan drama to a fizzy feel-good farce.
The third in his unofficial wartime trilogy with Flare Path and While the Sun Shines, Love in Idleness is set in 1944 at the time when London children are returning to their families. Olivia Brown (Eve Best) welcomes back her son Michael (Edward Bluemel) who has been living Canada. Now a very young adult who pursues a Hamlet-like demeanour, Michael moves into Olivia’s upgraded home in Westminster where she lives out of wedlock with pragmatic politician, Sir John Fletcher (Anthony Head). Unlike Flare Path, these characters are far from the war effort, here divided by a curtain which displays projected wartime images. Yet attitudes about the war still spark confrontation: Michael and John are deeply divided about what a postwar Britain might look like, while Olivia sees the war effort either as a peripheral nuisance or an excuse to dine out.
Rattigan’s people are very precisely drawn. They are fully fleshed and intensely contradictory: the progressive son who takes issue with his mother ‘living in sin’, the pragmatic politician who is irrational with the woman he loves, the socialite mother whose extensive emotional insight stops short at herself. Nunn initially reflects these portraits in a world that is light and breathy but that also masks a deep weight. Best’s Olivia is complex from the start, even when she is planning high society parties. A charismatic performance, delicately shrewd and emotionally aloof, Best carries Olivia’s richness effortlessly with an airy charm. Head stumbles a bit through his performance as Fletcher but is adequately endearing.
The trouble arises as the play continues, and what was effervescent but flavourful becomes just flat. Bluemel’s Michael is an exaggeration of a young adult desperate to assert maturity. But perhaps this isn’t entirely Bluemel’s fault, as the characters are reduced to sketches of their former selves. Miss Wentworth, John’s previous wife, comes on too late in the first act to give Helen George any opportunity for depth and colour. And what suffers most are the relationships between the characters: Olivia and Michael lack an intimacy (even if it is a forced one), or even an obligation to each other, that is pivotal to the plot. It’s not a seamless suturing of the two plays, and what remains is a work that is a bit stuck in between.
Something that is agreeable runs the risk of being boring, not because all things agreeable are necessarily boring, but because to appease all is usually a dilution process. It waters down the wine and steadies any of the chaotic currents that might tip something or someone over. Rattigan retrospectively regretted courting commercial success and changing his play, and although Nunn gives life to some of the best parts of the narrative, Love in Idleness remains slightly too agreeable, slightly too idle.
Love in Idleness is on at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 29th April 2017. Click here for more details.