To read (the programme notes while waiting for the curtain to rise), or not to read. That’s becomes a serious question when the play is Terence Rattigan’s Less Than Kind, un-staged in its original version from 1944 until the enterprising Planet Theatre disinterred it last year. As a play, it stands on its own two feet without any knowledge of the background. In Adrian Brown's production, it’s also very good.
Forget about turning the plot of Hamlet on its head for a moment. Plenty of productions have fun with this one, as well as with other classics – and they mostly stand up to the treatment. Instead, concentrate on the story. Olivia is a young widow, whose son has evacuated to Canada for the war years. With the tide of battle turning in favour of the Allies, he’s come home not as a boy but as a 17-year old, balancing precariously between youth and manhood.
But Olivia no longer lives in a cramped West London flat. Instead she lives in Mayfair luxury with her Canadian industrialist and wartime Cabinet minister lover Sir John Fletcher. Although they intend to marry as soon as his divorce from Diana is possible, it’s not a situation to which young Michael takes kindly. And he soon starts manoeuvring people to his own agenda, both personal and political.
It could be a farce. It’s not. It could be a tragedy, and does have elements of that. For much of the time it’s a comedy, a comedy of manners but one where the personages are real people. People with genuine emotions, who have to make choices, and suffer for them. The two central performances are those of David Osmond, who is utterly believable as Michael, and Sara Crowe as Olivia.
When we first meet her, Olivia seems a blonde airhead, all social flimflammery and completely unable to see that the boy she waved goodbye to in 1939 has grown up and apart. When she makes her choice between son and would-be husband, she changes before our eyes, and this is something which Crowe makes us accept completely. Whatever her faults, Olivia has her own integrity.
The other actors do well enough – though I wasn’t entirely convinced by James Wilby as Sir John – with Caroline Head as a man-devouring Diana and Katie Evans as the obligatory maid. Incidentally, three-act plays present a conundrum to modern theatre managements. Do you go for an overlong first half, or dare to opt for the proper two intervals? Extra bar takings, or grumbles about a time over-run that might mean bus and train connexions missed? It’s a puzzlement.