Watching Separate Tables it’s easy to see why Terrence Rattigan fell out of fashion after the “angry young man” wave. The dissection of upper-class pretensions didn’t sit easily with the new generation of theatregoers and his plays became regarded as museum pieces.
However, there seems to be something of a revival of interest in Rattigan right now and, again, it’s easy to see why. Here’s a master playwright at work and Philip Franks’ Chichester production clearly demonstrates why Rattigan was a revered playwright for so long.
Separate Tables (in reality, two one-act plays), is set in a Bournemouth hotel in the early 50s. Most of the characters are in both plays, only the lead protagonists change. In the first play, a glamorous model comes to the hotel seeking her first husband, a hard-drinking former Labour MP. In the second play, the other residents discover one of the guests, an ex-army officer, has pleaded guilty to soliciting young men and convene a kangaroo court to establish whether he should leave - this is a departure from the original as the Lord Chamberlain would have prevented any reference to homosexuality at that time.
The first act seems a bit creaky at times and does have elements of melodrama that spoil the mood but the second act is a perfect psychological study of guilt, oppression and family relationships.
Both plays deal with the themes of repression, both make much of class distinctions and both feature outsiders who appear to be different from the norm. But as the hotel manager, Pat Cooper (a marvellously understated performance by Deborah Findlay asks “What is normal anyway?” Rattigan’s genius is to hint at deeper secrets in all the characters: the retired schoolmaster longing for visits from former boys and the elderly spinster with the penchant for racing could, one feels, equally be the subject of plays.
The whole cast perform flawlessly - this is a masterclass in ensemble acting. As the drunken red and shamed major, Iain Glen has the meatiest parts and while his northern accent wobbles a bit in the first, the latter is spot-on, the hearty manner masking his most shameful secret. Gina McKee is almost unrecognisable as the repressed spinster with a secret love for the major and is excellent as the glacial model.
Stephanie Cole is suitably monstrous as the overbearing Mrs Railton-Bell, a woman whose nose for gossip is the equal of any Fleet Street hack. There are good performances all round though; from John Nettleton’s fusty schoolteacher to Lia Rogers’ perky maid. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ excellent set captures all the trappings of middle-class life, the “chintzy, chintzy cheeriness” as Betjeman called it.
Although this play captures the mood of a particular time, it’s not really outmoded, The themes of guilt, loneliness and repressed desire are with us still. Rattigan is a master dissector of emotions and this Chichester production is a superb chance to see the work of a craftsman at his best.