Writer: Mike Poulton
Director: Lucy Bailey
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Since the centenary celebrations of Terence Rattigan’s birth in 2011 his plays have enjoyed something of a resurgence in London. Next week the latest of these opens at The National Theatre, The Deep Blue Sea, starring Helen McCrory, but Rattigan’s fiction was based on real life events, and in a perfectly timed opening the Arcola welcomes Mike Poulton’s new play Kenny Morgan, which to all intents and purposes is the real story of Rattigan’s entanglement with a suicidal former lover that would inspire his tragic masterpiece.
In a grotty lodging house in late 1940s Camden, Kenny Morgan is discovered on the floor of his flat having tried to gas himself while his lover Alec is away. His neighbours, including an Admiralty worker, a former doctor and his landlady, rally round saving his life and unwittingly calling his former lover Rattigan to help him. In the course of 24 hours Kenny confronts his troubled life, his feelings of displacement and the lack of requited love in confrontational scenes with his lovers and neighbours, hoping to find a reason to carry on.
Poulton’s new play is a fine tribute to Rattigan’s fictionalised version in which Kenny became Hester driven to despair after leaving her dull lawyer husband for her unsuitable fighter pilot lover. Surprisingly for a play about loss of faith with oneself as much as with the world, Poulton has filled it with great comic lines and characters, from the stereotypical fussing landlady to the cynical and uncaring Mr Ritter who attacks Kenny’s egotism. Poulton steers clear of encouraging too much sympathy for the protagonist and instead creates a context of criminality, both in attempting to take his own life – illegal in 1949 – and in yearning for a public homosexual relationship with Rattigan that helps the audience to understand the dangerous environment in which they lived.
The text is also filled with affectionate derision for the theatre with a few jibes at the self-absorption of actors and euphemistic descriptions of Kenny as “musical”. Poulton has also created a cast of fascinating secondary characters who bring a nice intensity and humanity to proceedings. Best among them is Pierro Niel-Mee as Alec whose seemingly callous treatment of Kenny reveals a sense of suffocation, represented by their tiny flat, which he must escape to preserve his own sanity, and Niel-Mee makes the aloof Alec a fascinating bundle of conflicted anger, regret and shame.
George Irving’s Mr Ritter may have a strange accent but he brings a much needed intensity to his scenes that make compelling viewing, while Matthew Bulgo’s helpful neighbour Dafydd Lloyd has a charming final scene encouraging a simple life – “it’s not that bad being ordinary.” Yet the central pairing of Kenny and Rattigan fails to find any real connection that makes their several scenes together not only repetitious but often stilted.
The character of Kenny elicits no sympathy and, although he is clearly troubled, it’s very difficult to really understand his motivation. He changes his mind with every visitor and Paul Keating’s performance makes him priggish and almost too detached from what is happening to him. Keating builds to a pitch of emotion in his final scene with Rattigan (Simon Dutton) but he’s is most often petulant so the whole thing lacks pathos – quite the opposite to the sorrow you feel for Hester in The Deep Blue Sea. Poulton’s new play is an affectionate and engaging tribute to Rattigan’s writing that sheds new light on the events of his life, but while Kenny Morgan is full of great scenes, the central relationship between the highly-strung young man and the famous playwright fails to ignite.
Runs until 18 June 2016 | Image: Idil Sukann