The Orange Tree Theatre scored a great success with this Rattigan revival back in 2019, and you can immediately see why. It is, like all of this writer’s work, a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, with that skill concealed under naturalistic dialogue that looks flat on the page but comes alive in performance. But more than that, this delightfully light and frothy farce offers us an escape from grim external circumstances just as it did to London audiences back in 1943 when first performed. You emerge into the winter night at Richmond with your mind blessedly wiped clean of Covid concerns.
It is a slow-burn start. An arch butler in the Wilde-Coward tradition brings in breakfast to the living room of a traditional but luxurious set of rooms at the Albany belonging to Bobbie, the charming but dim Earl of Harpenden. The latter is enlisted in the navy and getting ready for an interview at the Admiralty. In his haste to leave he fails to explain properly that he has rescued an American lieutenant from a drunken stupor and allowed him to stay the night. The lieutenant meets the earl’s fiancée, Lady Elizabeth, and mistakes her for another girl with whom he thinks Bobbie has set him up, and from that delightfully written seduction scene, farcical consequences begin rapidly to flow. The other lady, Mabel Crum, makes an appearance, as does a French officer who has befriended Lady Elizabeth on a train, and then finally her father, a duke with a gambling addiction is added to the mix.
It would be tedious and contrary to the light touch of farce to detail all the permutations and twists and turns that follow before everything is unravelled (insofar as it ever is). But suffice to say that Rattigan makes full use of the way the war years shook up British life to explore sexual and romantic possibilities and satirise class structure and national stereotypes. It may be a 1940s play, but there are perennial human insights and universal laughs to be had a-plenty.
Such a delicate structure depends for its success on light-touch direction, precise comic timing from the cast, and a flexible, but convincing set. This production ticks all these boxes. Paul Miller sets the pace expertly, especially in the crucial second scene, which unlocks all that follows; and Simon Daw’s set opens out the limited space available with multiple doors and just the right inflections of old-monied luxury, including an impressively huge ceiling rose and chandelier. There are no weak links in the cast, and sound designer Elizabeth Purnell wraps up the package with some delightful big-band music that sets the wartime tone accurately.
As the earl, Philip Labey has a tricky task in lifting the lines above a vapid stereotype, but he does so with real commitment and passion in the later stages, demonstrating the truth that the finniest comedy comes when it is played with utter seriousness. Rebecca Collingwood, as his bride-to-be, is very assured in depicting a shift from starchy ignorance of the world to drunkenness and abandonment to passion. As Mabel Crum, the classic tart with a heart, Sophie Khan Levy takes all her opportunities, when not banished to the kitchen; and John Hudson makes sure that every raised eyebrow registers as the put-upon butler, Horton. Conor Glean and Jordan Mifsúd play up to national stereotypes as the American and French officers, and Michael Lumsden shows peerless comic timing as the blundering and bumbling duke.
All in all, this is a delightfully stylish evening of period style and a sprightly tonic for our times.