Rattigan's life and work is certainly a rich and interesting subject: though he'd fallen out of fashion somewhat since his death in 1977, his 2011 centenary meant a recent spate of West End revivals including After the Dance and Flare Path, which rekindled dormant interest in him. The title of this piece refers to the fact that he was a gay man who never publicly came out, and the conflict between his public and private life is the source of much of the drama here.
To begin at the beginning (or rather, at the end, as this retrospective story does), the curtain rises, aptly enough, on a 66-year-old Rattigan at the first night of his final play Cause Celebre. He's frail, riddled with leukaemia, and no longer “the prettiest playwright in London”, although he can still turn a phrase, and knows it. Older Terry (Brian Deacon) is the audience's guide and narrator as we plunge back into his past.
A swift canter through Younger Terry's shining schooldays as the hero of Harrow's First Eleven reveals a precocious, somewhat precious boy, whose protective closeness to mother Vera (Judy Buxton) leaves father Frank (a sadly under-used character played with brilliantly bluff candour by the versatile Graham Pountney) out in the cold. After Younger Terry (the chippy yet vulnerable Ashley Cook) deliberately fails his Oxford Finals, Vera persuades Frank to support his son for two years while he tries to make it as a playwright. Which, by 25, he does; scoring a massive West End hit with his debut, French Without Tears.
Rattigan's early success, of course, is only the beginning of his problems. He's rich, famous and talented, yes; but he's also closeted, paranoid, and in love with a hysterical younger man, the Bosie to his Oscar Wilde: hardly a recipe for happiness. His family has no idea about his sexuality and, recalling a pivotal conversation with Frank about discretion, Terry wants to keep things that way ... but lover Kenneth doesn't.
The ups and downs of the next twenty-odd years, involving much public acclaim and private tragedy (the deaths of Kenneth, father Frank and brother Brian) are charted in a series of scenes at Rattigan's home(s). The regular players are Terry; the lover du jour, whether Kenneth or Michael (both accorded surprising subtlety and sympathy by Ewan Goddard's double portrayal) and Terry's longstanding pals, critic Cuthbert Worsley and director Freddie Gilmour.
Oliver Hume as Cuthbert gives a beautifully subdued, self-effacing performance, which contrasts satisfyingly with Graham Pountney's Quentin Crisp-channeling campness as Freddie. I was a little disappointed, however, that Rattigan's older man Chips never appeared: it would have been fascinating to see how that relationship differed from Terry's protective dominance over his “fresh-faced schoolboy” lovers.
Act Two happens post-1956, after John Osborne's fierce, iconoclastic Look Back in Anger permanently changed British theatre, rendering Rattigan's “French window” school of drama deeply unfashionable overnight. It's at this turning point that Older Terry – the fragile, defensive, confused man Rattigan eventually became – begins to take over, in spirit if not (yet) in body, and boyfriend Michael has to start looking after him rather than vice-versa.
What comes through most strongly in the second half is the dreadful poignancy and waste of Rattigan's failures – not the commercial ones, but the emotional ones they resulted in. His strength, self-control and talent are overwhelmed by his great weakness, pride: he refuses to let go of the past, let old wounds heal or ancient feuds (particularly with influential critic Tynan) die.
Deacon's performance as Older Terry is particularly affecting in the scenes where Rattigan converses with the absent, imaginary or dead, Tynan and T.E. Lawrence among them. Judy Buxton also pops up again in a mischievous cameo as Rattigan's own 'ideal audience member' Aunt Edna (later parodied by his protege Joe Orton as Edna Welthorpe, a writer of indignant, ill-informed letters to newspapers).
I had only two real issues with this production, the first being the choking amount of dry-ice and clove cigarette smoke inflicted on the audience. Naturally, the characters must smoke (it's set in the 1920s-70s after all), but even before the show, the auditorium was so thickly wreathed the set seemed to be smouldering. The second was the glossing-over of Rattigan's war years: he has one throwaway line about never having been heroic, but what about his RAF service? Biographical pieces always involve selectivity, but this felt like a missed opportunity.
Quibbles aside, Meg Witts's evocative, elegant set and Jackie Crier's sumptuous costumes helped infuse the stage with retro glamour, and it's really a compliment to director Knight Mantell's light, sure touch that he hasn't been mentioned until now: the slick and sensitive script of this eminently good-looking show seems almost to direct itself, belying the hard work that is always involved in making something seem effortless – rather like Rattigan's own work.