For 20 years from 1936 to 1956, Terence Rattigan was the star of British playwrights. From French Without Tears to The Deep Blue Sea, his plays ranked among the best and most popular in the West End. Then along came Osborne and Orton and the rise of the "kitchen sink drama". Rattigan's closely observed but decidedly middle-class dramas fell out of favour and, almost overnight, his audiences went elsewhere. Even worse, the critics tore him to shreds.
Giles Cole's The Art of Concealment uses the well-worn theatrical device of the old, dying writer looking back over his life with a candour that may only come to those near death. The younger Rattigan, played with verve and many cigarettes by Dominic Tighe, is arrogant, manipulative of his friends and lovers and keeps his emotions tightly concealed since to reveal his homosexuality at that time would have destroyed his reputation and risked his imprisonment.
Unfortunately, the direction of the piece by Knight Mantell is simultaneously overwrought and one-dimensional. It's all very interesting but also very mannered, with most of the cast presenting little more than middle-class caricatures. The young Rattigan is shown as unlikeable in his coldness and his cavalier behaviour towards his lovers, striking poses very prettily, holding cigarettes. He may well have been closed-off, forced to hide his emotions under the respectability that society demanded but there's not a single iota of warmth, humanity or sympathy about him, even in private. This Rattigan isn't just concealing his emotions - he doesn't have any.
Rattigan's life-long friends Freddie and Cuthbert are played by Graham Pountney and Christopher Morgan as two old luvvie queens at such a level of campness that it's hard not to wonder whether a nearby production of Cinderella is missing its Ugly Sisters. Judy Buxton plays Rattigan's mother, Vera, precisely but is on the verge of over-acting throughout. Buxton also takes the role of Aunt Edna (the persona Rattigan himself invented), who comes on in the final act to lecture Rattigan on where he's gone wrong.
The shining light is Alistair Findlay as the older Rattigan. He holds the production together and brings out a vulnerability that is totally lacking in the younger character. There's a finesse to Findlay's performance that presents Rattigan as so much more than the talented but unappealing younger man.
Recent hugely successful revivals of Flare Path and Deep Blue Sea have restored Rattigan as one of Britain's foremost playwrights. His talent was undoubted and endures - but I suspect there's a lot more to the man than is portrayed in this piece.
- Carole Gordon