Love in Idleness, Apollo Theatre

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by guest critic Tom Brocklehurst

This is Trevor Nunn’s third production of a Rattigan play, and in his programme notes he calls it ‘a masterpiece’. On reading the plot synopsis, one might have trouble imagining this play as such.

It’s the 1940s. Olivia Brown awaits the return of her 18-year-old son Michael, whom she has not seen for four years. Whilst he’s been away, his father has died and Olivia has found love with a successful arms manufacturer, Sir John Fletcher. When Michael comes back with new-found left-wing ideas, he is horrified at the opulence of his mother’s new lifestyle, and disgusted with the man making his millions from warfare. It’s a fairly simple plot, in which Rattigan preempts a whole host of classic teenage-angst dramas, whilst happily throwing in comic references to Hamlet and Oedipus for fun.

What makes this production a near-masterpiece is the acting. Eve Best is arguably the best actress working in London. She can effortlessly portray every minuscule change in emotion, even to those in row Z. She is so committed to the part that it is exhausting to watch her as she squirms on the sofa or clings onto her son. She is funny, sad and fraught by turn – she wears every emotion completely on her sleeve throughout the performance.

When revived in its other form (Less Than Kind), it was criticised for its central plot point being improbable. This is a play that asks us to believe that this woman would choose the happiness of her son over a relationship with the man she loves – a difficult leap considering how happy she appears to be with him. However, Best pulls it off, and we can immediately understand Anthony Head’s absolute despair at the possibility of losing her.

With Best as the emotional heart of the play, Edward Bluemel has a chance to prove his comic chops as the ultra-moody teenager, channelling everyone from Morrissey to Harry Enfield as he stomps and pouts around the stage. He winds up everybody – patronising his ‘poor old mum’ and nearly coming to blows with Anthony Head’s otherwise-measured Sir John. It’s a compliment to the production that his comic over-pouting doesn’t threaten to destroy the drama. We know his mother still loves him regardless.

This is a masterclass in comic acting and direction. Rattigan’s script doesn’t have many new ideas, but the pacing and execution of this production makes it a pure joy from beginning to end. For this hardened reviewer to weep at the end of a 3-hour Rattigan farce? That might be the sign of a masterpiece.

Love in Idleness runs through 1 July.

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