A family crisis fuels the drama in Terence Rattigan's 1940 comedy Love in Idleness, revived in a handsomely mounted but slow-moving production, directed by Trevor Nunn, which has transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the Apollo Theatre in London's West End.
Returning from Canada after a four-year absence during the war, 17-year-old Michael is full of youthful ideology and leftist leanings. But he is shocked to find his widowed mother Olivia is now the mistress of industrialist-cum-cabinet minister Sir John Fletcher, enjoying a comfortable society life. Michael – who seeks to scupper the relationship – and Sir John clash, sparks fly and bonds are tested as everyone learns some difficult lessons in love.
In 1944 Rattigan wrote a play called Less Than Kind but soon after was persuaded to revise it, and does so in Love in Idleness. Now Trevor Nunn has synthesised the two versions. It is not difficult, however, to see why the play is so rarely performed – the story is slim and it lacks the insight and emotional depth of his 1952 masterpiece The Deep Blue Sea, which the National revived in a brilliant production last year. Furthermore, this is a production that would have benefitted from being much tighter as at almost three hours it is somewhat overlong.
That said, the production conveys a strong sense of period, making clever use of old Pathé newsreel footage which reveals the deprivations of wartime, as well as conveying the optimism that emerged from the Beveridge report's idealistic vision of social security for every member of the nation.
What really lifts this production, though, are the immaculate performances. Eve Best invests the devoted mother Olivia with heartbreaking feeling as she surrenders her own personal happiness to keep her son happy, bringing a blend of passion and snobbery to the role and the results are often very funny. Edward Bluemel, with a slick of jet black hair, catches the arrogant sense of youthful entitlement with an appropriately irritating vigour as the moody, disaffected son, Michael, playing Hamlet games. Anthony Head meanwhile convinces as the smug iron-willed Sir John, and Charlotte Spencer is a delight as Sir John's flighty estranged wife, Diana, complete with cut-glass accent. Rattigan thought of this play, the third of his 'War Trilogy', the previous two being the powerfully emotional Flare Path and the comedy While the Sun Shines as proving that even in wartime we can laugh at ourselves. The end of the war is in sight here but, as Rattigan feared, it will be the same as the old world but spring-cleaned a little.
Love in Idleness
Runs until Saturday 1 July 2017 at Apollo Theatre, London.
Box office: 0330 333 4809Last modified: April 6, 2021