I was looking forward to ‘The Art of Concealment’, Giles Cole’s biographical piece about the life and work of Terence Rattigan, having heard good things from its outings both at the Brighton Festival and Jermyn Street theatre.

Perhaps I over-anticipated because Knight Mantell’s production at Riverside Studios feels painfully linear in its storytelling, and placing the older Rattigan in a stage box viewing his younger self acting out the episodes is a stale theatrical device. There are interesting snippets but you long for actual scenes showing Rattigan’s meeting with a young Joe Orton, or the bitter catfight with arch-critic Kenneth Tynan.

This is less a dramatization than a narration: it’s desperately chronological yet at the same time coy. There’s an unfortunate game of “name that tune” afoot when the characters speak of the play whose first night they’re attending, but without giving its title: so the RAF uniforms and ‘having to shake hands with the top brass’ suggests Flare Path, oblique references to gas fire suicides point you towards ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ and Judy Buxton in a nicely graded reading of Rattigan’s mother actually waves the programme for ‘Separate Tables’ at the audience.

This is partially compounded by the design: whilst the costumes and furniture are accurately suggestive, the all purpose red-velvet clad windowless room set feels claustrophobic and some back projection, even of the posters for the Rattigan plays in succession, would be illuminating.

Because Rattigan’s career peaked in the war years and early 50s, the dialogue is problematic: audiences are so attuned to parodies of the period like Harry Enfield’s Mr Cholmondely-Warner, or spoofs of Brief Encounter that authentic dialogue is hard to listen to, and harder to write. Cole skirts this by making his script too modern and too profane for the times.

Cole also avoids Rattigan’s film successes like The VIPs and the Anthony Asquith classic The Way To The Stars. Characters too are mired in camp backstage bitchery which is often funny, particularly in the hands of Graham Pountney brilliantly doubling Rattigan’s ramrod-backed father with his most outrageous friend, but again the dialogue is overly sitcom-snappy for verisimilitude.

There are new castings for this version: Brian Deacon assumes the mantle of the older Rattigan with assured irascibility, but could go further to expose his bitterness. I liked the idea of having Ewan Goddard play both the younger lovers – suicidal Kenneth Morgan and the American Michael Franklin (not that suicidal and American need be mutual exclusives) and it seem to reinforce the idea that all of Rattigan’s lovers were interchangeable and equally disposable although that may have been a budget decision rather than authorial inventiveness. The way Franklin remained loyal and resourceful to the end of Rattigan’s life, rather than proved to be the throwaway rent boy the bitchy friends claimed he was, is quite tenderly handled.

Smokers may particularly enjoy this play. One character dies of emphysaema, another of lung cancer but with the fact that the cast smoke a couple of packs of stage cigarettes AND relentless use of the smoke machine for ‘atmosphere’, you could come home with a forty a day habit just from sitting in the front rows

Runs until 20th May

The Public ReviewsOriginally published on The Public Reviews.