Less Than Kind, by Terence Rattigan, Jermyn Street Theatre, January 2011

In 1942 the Beveridge Report backed the idea of central planning for post-war reconstruction, along with a Welfare State and social safety net. “Fair shares for all” was the catchphrase, and Rattigan was sympathetic to these ideas, which inform the opinions of the young man in the play. His name is Michael Brown, a Hamlet-like character who has just rejoined his mother in London after spending five years as an evacuee in Canada. His father has died and his much-loved mother, Olivia is living with a married cabinet minister and ex-industrialist, Sir John Fletcher. Young Michael is outraged and appalled, and this young left-winger (I’m not a communist, I don’t follow the CP line) hates his mother’s partner, and presumptuously decides to bring Sir John’s wife into the affair, innocently thinking she will bust up her husband’s sinful arrangements. She doesn’t. In fact she’s a rather naughty lady who has her own affairs, and in the end she acts as the catalyst to bring everything to a happy conclusion. In the meantime, however, the wretchedly clever and priggish Michael does in fact manage to break up his mother’s relationship.

The title of the play is taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act 1, sc.2) when the young prince is addressed by his step-father, and says to himself “A little more than kin, and less than kind!” The ‘step-father’ in this play, Sir John Fletcher was brilliantly portrayed by Michael Simkins. He came over as very sharp, very shrewd, and very intelligent, seeing clearly that young Michael with his “Oedipus complex and a passion for self-dramatisation” was consciously acting the part of Hamlet. It’s a clever play, with wonderful dialogue, but Rattigan was persuaded to alter it drastically in rehearsal, and although it was very successful under the title Love in Idleness, Rattigan later regretted his own changes. Fortunately a copy of the original 1944 play survived in the offices of the Lord Chamberlain, and is now staged for the first time!

This production by Adrian Brown, with fine set and costume designs by Suzi Lombardelli, gives a sense of energy to the events, and I found it riveting. The acting is wonderful, with David Osmond being assertively obnoxious as the young Michael, and Caroline Head seductively gorgeous as Sir John’s estranged wife Diana. Michael’s mother was well played by Sara Crowe, though I never felt entirely convinced about her affection for Sir John, and it struck a jarring note when she dialled only five digits on the telephone, instead of seven, and didn’t give the other party time enough to respond. Sir John’s secretary was well played by Vivienne Moore as a conscientiously mousey lady, and Katie Evans was gloriously real as Polton the maid.

This play is a must-see for any Rattigan fans, or indeed for anyone else, but this delightful theatre is small and tickets scarce. Performances continue until February 12th — for more details click here.

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