In its day this sparkling but slight comedy, seldom seen in recent years, was the biggest commercial hit of Terence Rattigan's career. Premiered in 1943, it probably scored as a funny, trivial, slightly silly diversion from the horrors of the Second World War.
More than seventy years later, and in the light of what we now know of Rattigan's sexuality, this breezy tale of a privileged Earl who shares his bed with Allied soldiers in need of a temporary billet while also debating whether or not to go through with marrying his equally privileged WAAF fiancée, looks naive at best, heartless at worst. Despite that – and this may be indicative of the grim times we are again living through – the gales of laughter that greeted this romp on press night suggests that it still has some mileage as a good old-fashioned crowd pleaser.
With its drawing room setting (simply but beautifully realised by designer Simon Daw) and its blusteringly pompous English Duke, preciously 'zut alors' French lieutenant and good-hearted but meat-headed American serviceman, plus a decidedly reactionary view of the divide between men and women, the play has not aged well. Director Paul Miller makes little attempt to update or comment upon the dated text – the underlying homoeroticism pretty much speaks for itself – but instead gives us a pacy, exquisitely acted account of Rattigan's play.
Miller's mastery of in-the-round staging is impressive, as it should be given that he is artistic director of this venue. No audience member is looking at the back of an actor's head for any significant length of time and characters move midspeech to encompass and engage the entire house, but it always feels completely natural and spontaneous. Whatever the shortcomings of the play itself, this production is pretty much faultless.
A superb cast savour the elegance, wit and occasional absurdity of Rattigan's well-turned dialogue and deliver performances of near-perfect high comedy playing. Philip Labey's excellent Earl of Harpenden begins as a slightly louche, romantically indifferent young roué but finds unexpected depths of feeling when confronted with the possibility of losing his betrothed (Sabrina Bartlett, delightful).
Jordan Moore-Cook and Jordan Mifsúd score comedy gold as the two foreign soldiers the Earl gives house room to, as does John Hudson as a bewildered manservant and a riotously funny Michael Lumsden as the Earl's loquacious future father-in-law.
Best of all is Dorothea Myer-Bennett, utterly sensational in the most interesting role, and arguably the only one which entirely sidesteps cliché: lovable, acid-tongued Mabel Crum initially appears to be the archetypal ‘tart with a heart' but emerges, through clever writing and a brilliant performance, as a clear-eyed survivor with an edge of real nobility and a streak of kindness a mile wide. Myer-Bennett nails the self-deprecating humour but compellingly suggests a sadness behind the eyes. It's a masterclass in truthful comic acting.
Lacking the emotional heft of Rattigan's most accomplished work and seldom funny enough to compensate for its lack of depth, it's not hard to see why While The Sun Shines isn't revived often. Miller and his magnificent cast have done a fine reclamation job however, and succeed in polishing the play up to a shinier gleam than it probably deserves. A trivial but undeniably enjoyable evening.