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The Art of Concealment: Terence Rattigan
Published on Wednesday, 11 May 2011

4.5 stars

Iambic Arts Theatre (venue website)
6-8, 11-13, 18-20 May, 8:00pm-9:45pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Suitable for age 18+ only.
 Warning: Contains strong language.
 World Premiere.

It must be daunting to pen a work about a fellow playwright - especially one as famous, yet private, as Terence Rattigan.  Much-loved for plays such as The Winslow Boy or The Browning Edition, the Rattigan of Giles Cole's script is a deeply ambiguous character, alternately hateful and charming. He pushes affection away, yet lets his lovers torment him; we share his pain when others are cruel to him, though he metes out the same cruelty with callous ease.  The laws of the time leave him no choice, he argues, but did he really have to live his life that way?  And in the end, as the privations of age finally catch up with him, will he find comfort among the truest of his friends?

It's a mistake, though, to pigeonhole The Art Of Concealment as (yet another) play about the torment of gay men in times gone by.  It's better-rounded than that; Rattigan is defined by far more than his sexuality, just as he surely was in real life.  The witty, spiky sparring with his bluff Establishment father proves an early highlight, but what stays with you is his craving for success, and the agony he feels when his work falls out of favour. 

Rattigan's decline from grace has surprisingly little to do with his private life - and therein lies the play's additional dimension.  It serves as an educated retrospective on mid-20th-century theatre, drawing deft parallels between Rattigan's scripts and the tale of his own life.  It becomes a little lecturing towards the end, as Rattigan indulges in critical debates with figments of his own imagination, but it's still a pleasure in the perennially snack-sized Fringe to gnaw on such a meaty, thoughtful play.

Playing the young Rattigan, there's a merest hint of woodenness about Kieran Gough's square-shouldered intensity - and I grew a little weary of seeing each Meaningful Line signposted by a Telling Look.  Such details aside, this is a highly impressive portrayal, conveying a kind of buttoned-up discomfort more emotive than wailing angst.  For me though, it's the actorly Robert Rowe as an older Rattigan who really scoops the honours - sliding from impish amusement at the foibles of his youth, to the devastating realisation that the old ways can no longer serve him.

The supporting cast are equally strong, with a special mention for Christopher Morgan, who puts in a selfless performance as the quiet but loyal Cuthbert. He's the perfect counterpoint for Graham Pountney's outrageous Freddie, who lifts the mood with gloriously foul-mouthed put-downs at the most wonderfully unexpected of times.  All in all, it's worth dedicating an evening to this multi-faceted work - which explores so much, yet highlights how some human truths will remain forever concealed.

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