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Mike Poulton: The plays we can't write

In his exclusive blog for WhatsOnStage Poulton examines the difficulties associated with bringing the story of Kenneth Morgan and Terence Rattigan's turbulent relationship to the stage

Mike Poulton

Following on from his Olivier and Tony Award-nominated adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, Mike Poulton's new play Kenny Morgan draws on real-life events behind Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea.

For centuries, and for all sorts of reasons, playwrights have sometimes been prevented from writing plays they really wanted to write. Sir Thomas More, to which Shakespeare contributed at least one extraordinary speech – urging humane treatment of a pitiful crowd of foreign refugees from an angry London mob – fell foul of the censor and was never performed.

Plays about riots might encourage disorder on the streets of London. For the first performances of A Doll's House in Germany, Ibsen was forced to write ‘a more positive' ending where Nora returns to her children, and controlling husband, and agrees to give the marriage another go. That fact that the new ending destroyed the point of the play seemed to have escaped the notice of its producers.

Wagner reluctantly added a ballet to Tannhäuser in order to give Napoleon III and the Paris audience what they wanted and expected. And Terence Rattigan, setting out to write a play around the suicide of his lover, decided to change Kenny's sex. A failed homosexual relationship would never have got past the censor – still as active and censorious in the 1950's as he had been in Shakespeare's day. So Hester Collyer must do duty as Kenny Morgan in one of Rattigan's greatest plays: The Deep Blue Sea.

After the abolition of censorship, Rattigan wrote a letter to John Osborne: "At last I can write about my particular sins without Lord Chamberlain-induced sex-change dishonesty... Perhaps I should rewrite The Deep Blue Sea as it really was meant to be."

But he never did.

Rattigan's play certainly doesn't need a rewrite – nor does it need adapting. I set out, like a detective in a novel, to research the facts around the death of poor Kenny and write something new. In 1940 the British Film Industry voted him most promising newcomer – you can see his performance in the film version of Rattigan's French Without Tears – looking fifteen rather than nineteen. Yet despite his promise, nine years later he killed himself in a North London flat with a gas-ring and a wet towel.

My research yielded many surprises. In 1949 there were over 3000 suicide attempts using coal gas – 2700 were successful. Of those who failed – because the meter cut off the supply, or because they were caught in the act, or because they changed their minds and called for help – many were put in prison: suicide and attempted suicide were criminal offences until 1961. Some of the characters involved are still alive, or have children I count as friends and colleagues.

Even today I can't tell the absolute truth. As I followed in Rattigan's footsteps – studied evidence he must have studied – I decided I'd have to write a work of fiction in an attempt to create my version of Kenny's last day on earth. Rattigan used a Greek structure for his play. I followed his example and included a few homages to his fine original. I hope he would have approved of my efforts.

Kenny Morgan runs at the Arcola Theatre from 18 May - 18 June 2016.