I know not if there is a reason
Why I am so sad at heart.
A legend of bygone ages
Haunts me and will not depart.
- Henrich Heine (first stanza of The Lorelei)
The inaugural presentation of Terence Rattigan’s richly woven tale of “sentimental” longing versus the cold glare of reason features a first act that sputtered then fired, a second that burst into flaming hilarity and a searing finish (at least in the script) that merely ignited a few flickering chuckles instead of a firestorm of howls as the vixen of the piece finally got her brilliant comeuppance.
Written in 1936 just ahead of the onset of WW II, it’s abundantly clear that the playwright sensed the inevitable carnage—slightly masked by a German coat and French beret—but also began his version of slipping same-sex desires into a superficially heterosexual drama (replete with cross dressing, fag hags and two helpings of “I love a man in uniform”).
Set in “Miramar, a villa in a small seaside town in the South of France,” Rattigan has used the notion of an upscale French tutor (Michael Ball as Monsieur Maingot tries his level best to sound like un vrai professeur, but—unlike the multitude of intended false fronts around him—can’t quite find his inner-Gallic, looking most comfortable in his Scottish kilt, worn for the nearby Casino’s fancy ball. Scoring much higher on the language card are Julie Martell as his daughter Jacqueline (a.k.a. Jack to the union boys) and Saccha Dennis as her co-chambermaid, Marianne (Dennis delivers a tears-in-your-eyes one-too-many trip that was as hilarious as it was unexpected).
In the difficult-to-pull-off opening frames, the young men of the French immersion house have a difficult time establishing Rattigan’s elusive rhythm, leading to a few trampled lines that will—sans doute—vanish after a few more performances.
Billy Lake is a perfect vision of his distant relative, diplomat hopeful Kenneth Lake (a casting narrative coincidence of the highest order) who barely manages to conceal his Friend of Dorothy’s predilection as he offers discreet looks at the attractive testosterone surrounding him, seizes his chance to play adult piggyback when offered fisticuffs break out and gamely lends his “Greek dress” to one of the forbidden fruits of his wandering eye.
Man-about-the-village Brian (Craig Pike unleashed is a hoot if, at times—notably the opening—a few decibels trop fort) is the straightest arrow in the quiver, risking the wrath of mentor Maingot in order to spend borrowed cash and savour the delights of the local tart, Chi Chi d’amour).
Passably bilingue but filled with writer wannabe angst (his novel keeps coming back…), the Honourable Alan Howard (Ben Sanders has a most successful outing) is quick to dispense caustic one-liners but decidedly slow to recognize what his sentimentally longs for.
The femme fatale of the secluded Alliance Française comes in the shapely form of Kenneth’s sister, Diana (Robin Evan Willis is a marvel of deception and manipulation) who is lodging with the rest not to learn the language (she has been parked while her parents frolic elsewhere) but to—as a woman of charm and leisure—perfect her only talent: being as “sentimental” with as many men as possible. Her current beau-du-jour is late riser Kit Neilan (a bravura performance from Wade Bogert-O’Brien once he slips into Kenneth’s Hellenistic swan outfit and gaily prances with all comers—designer extraordinaire William Schmuck subtly puts the icing on Kenneth’s preferential cake by decking him out in a sailor suit that marvellously echoes the very best photos from the famed Pierre et Gilles series).
Everyone’s quasi contented world comes to a crashing halt with the arrival of distinctly unilingual Lieutenant-Commander Rogers (unlike his younger charges, Martin Happer deliberately cues up the long ball of characterization, stammering effectively in the early going, happily morphing into the relationship wrecker before—under the considerable influence that all navy men can only know by experience—masterfully playing both sides of the sexual street with deft salutes, a perfectly-timed limp wrist wave and marvellously selective memory, making this the standout performance of the talented lot) arrives to extol the virtues of a “hearty” man.
Director Kate Lynch has clearly demonstrated an obvious affinity for Rattigan’s style, substance and subtext, which makes the last “hurrah” all the more inexplicable. After shamelessly twisting a number of men who made the fatal mistake of believing any protestation of love, almost every soul in the house (of any persuasion) wanted nothing more than a your-turn slap-down to the career harlot in both official languages. Instead of “a bright young schoolboy of about fifteen. He carries his straw hat” we were offered a dour looking made-up gentleman resplendent in gel and morning coat whose indiscriminate age erred sadly on the side of “older.” The best premeditated gag from Rattigan’s considerable imagination was lost even as those who might never have read his script—including nearby patrons—rightfully wondered just what all the fuss was about. JWR