Philip Franks's production demonstrates that period pieces can be played as exactly that whilst still attaining a deceptive emotional impact. Terence Rattigan's tale of a spiritually etiolated classic master's last gasp might seem to belong in one of Damien Hirst's tanks of formaldehyde, preserved but essentially inert. The world of the play is one of clipped vowels and Greek construe exercises, of hankering after housemasterships and affairs in which even intense embraces retain a brittle poise. Franks directs all these aspects to the hilt, such that the early laughs are rooted in generic near-parody as much as in the script itself. The first scene presents us with Taplow, the epitome of a bespectacled public school boy; a lover with undercurrents of Michael Palin playing a games master; and the protagonist's wife, on whom Diana Hardcastle bestows with glacial precision the 1940s precursor of what Clive James dubbed the Dallas twitch.
Andrew Crocker-Harris himself seems at first to blend in perfectly with these types: the teacher whose job has become his life to the utter exclusion of all else, including his marriage. However, "the Crock"'s confrontation of his emotional sterility provides the drive of the play, and Clive Merrison brings that horrific realisation fully to life. Acidulous self-loathing is Merrison's long suit as an actor. His Crocker-Harris is not a creature of arid dispassion like Michael Redgrave's film incarnation; he gradually unmasks a corrosive contempt for the wasteland he has, with full awareness, made of his professional and personal life. The climactic heart tremor-cum-breakdown is here hideously prolonged without losing its power – once the facade of imperturbability drops, it can never be regained.
After last year's Doctor Faustus, Franks confirms his directorial strength as wringing psychological truth out of unlikely contexts. Having established an array of characters who are to modern eyes quite unreal, he locates and nurtures the play's germ of universality until it informs everything around it. Even the most peripheral characters – Crocker-Harris's inexperienced successor and his daftly simpering wife – become more than simple plot devices, as the brief falter in Michele Monks's grin provides a momentary insight that they too are putting on an outward show.
It's neither a masterpiece of a play nor a momentous production, but thoughtfully and seductively adds weight to the argument that Rattigan was more subversive than he is often given credit for.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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