Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 3 November 2014

First Episode

Jermyn Street Theatre ⋄ 28th October - 22nd November 2014

Bright young things.

Neil Dowden

Tom Littler’s Primavera Productions have made a speciality of rediscoveries. Earlier this year they staged the first ever revival of The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith, by Arthur Wing Pinero, and last year they produced Graham Greene’s infrequently performed The Living Room. Their production of Terence Rattigan’s debut 1933 play First Episode, co-written with Philip Heimann, marks the first time the play has been staged for almost 80 years.

Although it is obviously an immature work, and doesn’t possess the immaculate craftsmanship for which Rattigan became famed, it is much more than just a curiosity for those looking for signs of the later masterpieces: First Episode stands up with confidence on its own old/young feet.

Set mainly in an undergraduate lodging house, this comedy-drama is based on a triangular relationship between two men and a woman. At the apex is Tony, director of a student production of Antony and Cleopatra who has managed to persuade the well-established actress Margot Gresham to play opposite him, but their burgeoning off-stage affair is complicated by Tony’s intimate friendship with housemate David.

Written when Rattigan was still a student himself, the play was partly inspired by real events and relationships, notably an Oxford University Dramatic Society production of Romeo and Juliet directed by John Gielgud and starring Peggy Ashcroft, but also his own amorous feelings towards his heterosexual friend Heimann (who helped develop the scenario). The relatively frank depiction of an undergraduate lifestyle of drinking, gambling and, above all, sex was considered pretty racy when it was first staged, and this version of the text (edited by Dan Rebellato) restores some of the cuts enforced by the censorious Lord Chamberlain’s office to make the homoerotic undercurrent a bit more overt.

Even if some of the characterization is not fully rounded and the change in tone from boisterous humour to almost tragic heartbreak is not entirely convincing, this is still an astonishingly precocious work that displays youthful charm as well as sensitively exploring themes of unequal (if not unrequited) love and repressed emotion that became Rattigan trademarks. There is one scene especially, when we see Margot alone in silent pain, while next door we can hear the young men cheering on the horse they have backed as they listen to the Derby on the wireless, which shows the true class of the playwright he was to become.

Littler directs with assurance, bringing out the play’s ambivalent sexuality in the sometimes misogynist close male companionship but not overplaying it, while designer Neil Irish’s suitably cluttered student digs and Emily Stuart’s authentically detailed costumes add much to the period feel.

Gavin Fowler is an impulsively romantic Tony whose self-centred moodiness makes him drop women as quickly as he picks them up. Caroline Langrishe’s mature Margot is persuaded against her better judgement that love with a much younger man is possible. Philip Labey gives an impressively subtle performance showing both David’s jealousy and his stoicism. Alex Hope’s jovial, self-confident housemate contrasts with Adam Buchanan’s amusingly geeky virgin, who meets his match in Molly Hanson’s ditzy flirt.

First Episode may not have the same substance as recent ‘rediscoveries’ of Rattigan’s After the Dance or Flare Path. It lacks their emotional depth, but this play is a spirited one and there’s a definite case to be made for bringing it back to life on stage.


Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

First Episode Show Info

Produced by Primavera in association with Jermyn Street Theatre

Directed by Tom Littler

Written by Terence Rattigan, co-authored with Philip Heimann

Cast includes Caroline Langrishe, Gavin Fowler, Philip Labey, Alex Hope, Adam Buchanan, Molly Hanson, Harry Gostelow




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