Despite being written by Terence Rattigan in 1944, what we have here is something of a world premiere.
Back then, he wrote a play called Less than Kind, but was persuaded to tone down the politics of the piece and make it more “audience-friendly”. The subsequent rewrite was given the title Love in Idleness, although Rattigan always regretted tampering with the original work. What director Trevor Nunn has produced here is a merging of the two plays that delivers the delightful comedy of the rewrite but with the political edge Rattigan always intended.
Set in the final months of the Second World War, the story is centred on London’s Mayfair set for whom the conflict seems to be little more than an inconvenience; there are still dinner dates at the Savoy and the problems faced don’t seem to be any more serious than getting proper sherry.
Here we find Olivia Brown (Eve Best), a widow of some three years now living in loved-up bliss with cabinet minister and millionaire businessman Sir John Fletcher (Anthony Head), who is separated from his younger, gold-digging wife, Diana (Charlotte Spencer).
The delightfully flighty and slightly scatty Olivia has immersed herself completely in London society and slipped easily into the role of hostess with the mostess. While her partner labours away as Minister for Tanks, she spends her day organising dinner parties and gossiping on the phone.
A dilemma arises for Olivia when news comes through that her 14-year-old son Michael (Edward Bluemel), who was evacuated to Canada four years ago, is about to arrive home. How is she going to explain her living arrangements to the boy?
But that becomes the least of her problems when Michael arrives. Not only is he no longer a child — a concept that Olivia seems unable to come to terms with — but he has strong political views that lean decidedly to the left and are completely at odds with the man she loves. The two men lock horns from their first meeting, with Olivia stuck in the middle trying to be all things to both men.
Charlotte Spencer as Diana Fletcher (photographs by Catherine Ashmore)
By combining the two texts, Nunn has created the best of both worlds. A production that is sophisticated and witty, with Rattigan’s perfectly crafted lines zinging off the page, but that also has an incisive social commentary about building a better world for all after peace, something that resonates in the current political climate.
It’s delightfully played by the whole cast. Head projects the right amount of gravitas for a man in his position but displays a subtler, softer side when in the company of the woman with whom he is clearly besotted. And Bluemel is a hilarious, petulant upper-class Kevin as Michael.
But it’s Eve Best who really lights up the stage. One minute she’s displaying deft comic timing and then effortlessly switching to heartbreaking pathos as the plot takes a more poignant turn. I defy any man in the audience not to fall head over heels in love with her.
One possible downside of merging the two works is that at nearly three hours, the play feels a little too long with a second act that sags somewhat in the middle. But, generally, it’s a thoroughly winning, funny and moving production that lifts the spirits.
Love in Idleness is at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue until 1 July