The Art of Concealment Offers Insight into Terence Rattigan's World

Penny Flood enjoys a tribute to the playwright at Riverside Studios

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This year marks the centenary of the birth of Terence Rattigan, and The Art of Concealment by Giles Cole at the Riverside is a tribute to the man who was one of Britain’s most successful playwrights.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Rattigan’s work was playing on both sides of the Atlantic. Audiences couldn’t get enough of him - until he ceased to be fashionable in the 1950s as his genteel plays were overtaken by the popularity of kitchen sink dramas epitomised by John Osborne’s, Look Back in Anger.

Until I saw The Art of Concealment, I knew little about Rattigan, other than that he wrote The Browning Version which I hadn’t liked very much. Now I’ve learnt more about him, it’s left me with a better understanding of him and I want to know even more, and to see The Browning Version again.

Rattigan’s plays give a tantalising insight into the man and his world, as his work was influenced by the things that affected his own life: the need to conceal his sexuality, the suicide of his lover, and his father’s affairs, all appear in his writing. But it’s never overt.

Rattigan was too well brought up to wear his heart on his sleeve (and censorship and laws constrained what he could say). However, what lies beneath the surface is there for audiences with the knowledge and insight to discover it.

Cole’s play is powerful stuff. It focuses on significant points in Rattigan’s life as remembered by the dying playwright in 1977 while watching a performance of his play Cause Celebre in the West End. He died of cancer when he was only 66, four months after seeing this work and his own restoration to popularity.

The older Rattigan is played by Brian Deacon, who is looking back over his life, his work and his loves. He reminisces to himself as we the audience eavesdrop and the action in his mind is played out on the stage. He recalls himself as a young man (played to camp, delicious perfection by the beautiful Ashley Cook), with his adoring protective mother (Judy Buxton), his bullying, philandering father (Graham Poutney) and his brother, who we never see.

From there the action moves to New York and then back to London. Time and place are emphasised by some clever name dropping – ‘Larry’ Olivier, ‘Johnny’ Gielgud, Noel Coward, Benjamin Brittain, Joe Orton and many others.
The Art of Concealment at Riverside Studios Hammersmith

Deacon’s performance is faultless and moving. Rattigan is dying, he knows it and so do we, gasping with every painful breath and staggering with every painful step. Rattigan’s many lovers are represented here by the two who seem to have had a lasting impact – Kenneth who killed himself, and Michael, both played by Ewan Goddard. This tricky double is handled well by Goddard, who gives each their own distinctive characteristics.

In the first act we see Rattigan in New York, at the height of his career, revelling in the trappings of success – the fame, the money, popularity, the sex.

 

But it all changes in the second act. It’s 1956 and his fortunes are beginning to change when Osborne’s play gets rave reviews and Rattigan’s work gets bad reviews.

Instead of rising above the criticism, it eats into him leading to a long period of decline before he achieved some success again in his life time with Cause Celebre.

The clever, witty script veers between the sad and funny. Most of the action takes place in Rattigan’s home and his dressing rooms, and throughout he’s accompanied by his good friends Freddie (also Graham Pountney) and Cuthbert (Olivier Hume). Cuthbert was a theatre critic who defended Rattagan and lost his job as a consequence.

Freddie and Cuthbert act as a sort of gay, bitchy Greek Chorus moving things along as they comment on everything theatrical, be it in their immediate surroundings or in the wider world with their adored Terry always at the centre of things. They disapprove of Michael but he proves them wrong by staying faithful to Rattigan to the end.

The Browning Version is on in the West End right now and it’s very likely we’ll be treated to a lot more of his work as the year goes on. The Art of Concealment is a good to place start to help you get the most out of it.

The Art of Concealment continues at Riverside Studios in Crisp Road until May 20. Tickets can be bought online or call the box office on 020 8237 1111.

May 11, 2012