Written four years before his death and ten years after his previous play, Terence Rattigan’s In Praise of Love is not slighter than his best plays but a good deal lesser. It mugs the audience with emotional blackmail: leukaemia victim knows she’s dying and tries to conceal the blow from gruffly unreasonable but loving husband; who knows anyway but doesn’t want her to know that he knows.
Loosely based on the real life situation between Rex Harrison (who played the husband on Broadway) and Kay Kendall, Rattigan adds a best friend -- a successful writer, an American, Mark Walters (Sean Power) -- and a 20 year-old son of the couple, Joey (Gethin Anthony), who’s campaigning for the Liberal Party in a by-election (the play dates from 1973) and is about to have his first play produced on television.
Weirdly, the husband, Sebastian Cruttwell (Jay Villiers) is a Marxist literary critic with reactionary opinions, and the dying Lydia (played by Geraldine Alexander looking like a skinny blonde mix of Jean Seberg and Mia Farrow) an Estonian refugee from war-time Nazi atrocities.
In a speech that wasn’t in the much shorter original John Dexter production (which I saw on a double bill with an excruciating farcical spoof of Tosca), Sebastian describes how Lydia escaped from a mass grave of dead and dying Estonians; having gone through all that, it seems unjust to Sebastian that she should now die of this...
Moving, some people call it. Maudlin’s my word. Sebastian behaves, in his own words, like “an uncaring shit,” but you do wonder why Lydia should tolerate his abusive behaviour without knowing that he’s hiding his grief behind it; hell, she just loves the guy, I guess. Richard Beecham’s production, on a handsomely book-lined Islington set by Naomi Dawson, doesn’t make any of the characters seem very real to me.
Nor, to be fair, did a more florid Donald Sinden and a monumentally more eccentric Joan Greenwood in the original. Nothing rings true about Sebastian’s job, or his self-pitying breakdown in the second act, or Joey’s play, or indeed Lydia’s ethnicity or dilemma.
Rattigan completists will want to see the play, and so they should, in the playwright’s centenary year. But neither this nor Cause Célèbre is matching the much earlier Flare Path or last year’s even earlier After the Dance in the Rattigan roll call of over-praised raves from the grave.