Last year, as part of its season to celebrate Terence Rattigan’s centenary, Chichester Festival Theatre staged Nicholas Wright’s Rattigan’s Nijinsky, a new play that combined scenes from a never-produced Rattigan screenplay with a biodrama focusing on the playwright’s later life. The result was a somewhat awkward hybrid that flitted unsatisfactorily between the two narrative strands, precluding full involvement in either.
Rattigan-as-protagonist now returns in Giles Cole's The Art of Concealment, a play that was originally commissioned for last summer’s Brighton Festival Fringe and which now takes up residence at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Drawing upon the two major Rattigan biographies by Geoffrey Wansell and Michael Darlow, Cole’s play is a more satisfying and insightful piece of work than was Wright’s, fashioning what is in essence a memory play from the details of Rattigan’s life. The action begins on the eve of the opening of Cause Célèbre in 1977 and finds the ailing, elderly Rattigan reflecting upon the direction of his life, his relationships with his parents and his lovers, and his painful fall from critical and commercial favour.
Although the flashback structure, and the device of having Rattigan act as a commentator on his own experiences, results in some clumsy moments of excessive editorialising, the material feels more elegantly worked than in Wright’s play, and Knight Mantell’s tightly-controlled production holds the interest. As its title indicates, the play zeroes in on the notion of “concealment” as it applies both to Rattigan’s personal and professional life. “Concealment” is indeed a word that forms a refrain in the Darlow text, the biographer summarising Rattigan, finally, as “a man whose life had been devoted to forms of concealment and role-playing.” Given Rattigan’s reticence there is at times an uncomfortable suggestion of invaded privacy about the enterprise, as well as the feeling that the play may to some extent perpetuate a sentimentalised image of the playwright as a victim - of English sexual intolerance on the one hand and of the Royal Court revolution on the other.
The spelling-it-out obviousness of some moments here also suggests that the play has less to offer those already familiar with the facts of Rattigan’s life. But what the production does offer that the biographies don’t is the pleasure of performance. Dominic Tighe brings his customary grace and matinee-idol appeal to the younger Rattigan (what a great Freddie Page in The Deep Blue Sea he’d make!), skillfully presenting the protagonist as a man of both kindness and coldness. Even at his liveliest - when entertaining his chums with a Gielgud impersonation, say - Tighe keeps a tantalising aura of guardedness about him, that of a man who learnt early on to compartmentalise his life because “one has to be so careful about the things one reveals.” As the older Rattigan, Alistair Findlay is stuck with the play’s clunkier dialogue (“A Taste of Honey! To me it was a slap in the face!”). But the performance deepens in the later stages when he becomes a participant rather than a commentator on the drama.
Graham Pountney does amusing work as Rattigan’s philandering, philistine father Frank and in the (invented) role of Freddie Gilmour, a queeny director with a neat line in put-downs, while Judy Buxton is touching and vivid as Rattigan’s mother Vera who’s more generously portrayed here than she was in Rattigan’s Nijinsky. Buxton also gets a good late scene as “Aunt Edna” - the archetypal theatregoer evoked by Rattigan in his Prefaces - who here appears to confront the playwright about the ways in which he may have underestimated his audience. And there’s well-judged support from Daniel Bayle as Kenneth Morgan, and from Charlie Holloway as Michael Franklin, the volatile young man dismissed by Rattigan’s friends as a chancer but who ended up staying with Rattigan until the end of the latter’s life.
What Cole’s play doesn’t quite do justice to, perhaps, is the function that Rattigan’s emphasis on discretion - his mastery of the art of concealment, as it were - served for him as a dramatist. The abiding fascination with falsity and its revelation is part of the extraordinary tension that Rattigan’s best work can still generate in a theatre, an emotional charge that Cole’s play, for all its engaging moments, doesn’t manage to match.
The production runs for 2 hours 15 minutes and is booking until 28th January.
Reviewed for The Public Reviews.