Chesil Theatre has chosen to open their new 2019-2020 season with Terence Rattigan’s poignant and yet hard-hitting play, In Praise Of Love. Although familiar with some of Rattigan’s work, this is one that I’ve not come across before. First staged in 1973, it is set to a backdrop of fervent political unrest on all sides, indirect reference to apartheid, cultural differences and the horrors associated with persecution during World War II.
However, this play is much more profound and personal than a generalised footnote in history, being inspired by the real-life love story of actors Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall in light of her terminal illness, and suits both the intimate venue and talent of performers at Chesil Theatre.
Sebastian Crutwell is a notoriously prickly Sunday newspaper art critic: dismissive, aggressive, provocative, unfeeling, mocking… questionable attributes that he doesn’t just reserve for those he is critiquing, but also, it would seem, his wife and son.
His wife, Lydia, is suffering from polyarteritis, a degenerative condition that at that time was often a terminal condition. Believing that her pompous and socially inept husband would not be able to cope with the truth, she lies to him about her condition in order to protect him, little realising that he is in fact feigning indifference and ignorance in order to also protect her from the truth.
While each suppress their innermost feelings and emotions from the other, both are able to expound all to their very close friend, Mark, who is caught in the dreadful catch-22 situation of trying to support and protect and support each of them in different ways.
Director Norma York and her production team have succeeded in creating the illusion of an apartment living room where the audience are treated to a genuine ‘fly on the wall’ experience. There is so much attention to detail in the set design, dressing, props and costumes – all perfectly fitting to the era in which the play is set – while the sound effects are perfectly chosen, balanced and site specific. York has also ensured that the pace (and directed pauses) are excellently judged.
But it is the quality of the performances that have opened Chesil’s new season in such an emphatic and memorable fashion.
Katy Watkins gives a stellar performance as Lydia, strong, resilient, vulnerable, loving, passionate, intelligent and brave, her reminiscences of her past in Estonia and her experiences during the war helping to create a realistically three-dimensional character. Rattigan may have written her dialogue, but Watkins appears to be living the words. Her performance is captivating and deeply moving, while her accent appears impeccable, never faltering. (I admit that I’m not a linguistic expert, but there is no doubt that this is an Eastern European accent, even if not immaculately Estonian!)
Andy Nelson brings arrogance and superiority to the role of the overbearing Sebastian, ordering his wife around as if she were his personal slave (and drawing sharp intakes of indignant breath from many in the audience around me each time he issues a command), but he also showed great emotional range through the harrowing, haunting pain as he describes aspects of Lydia’s past and furious outbursts at the current political climate, and is arguably at his best during these moments as his physicality matches his dialogue completely.
Andrew Jenkins (Mark) never loses his American accent as he embodies the character of friend and confidante to the married couple. It is not easy to remain still, silent and totally focused during long monologues from someone else on stage, but Jenkins has mastered this skill, with his thought process clearly visible across his face without otherwise moving a muscle. His performance is understated, naturalistic and compelling, and all the more powerful for that.
Conlan Burns gives a very promising debut performance as Lydia and Sebastian’s son, Joey; this was not an easy choice to make for his first ever acting performance, but he can be proud of holding his own in this role against such talented and much more experienced actors.
The audience is left deliberating whether there are circumstances when lying is the worst crime between spouses or actually the greatest gift of love that one can bestow on the other. Themes throughout the play are timeless, even if the references to specific events may start to become lost on new generations – not something that should happen with plays and performances of this calibre. This may not have been a faultless production, but it is as close as I have seen to one in recent months and I would have no hesitation in recommending it.
In Praise Of Love continues until Saturday 6 October, 7.45pm each evening.