Writer: Terence Rattigan
Director: Paul Miller
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
For every cutting-edge play like 2014’s dystopian Pomona, or this year’s smart and queer Out of Water, artistic director Paul Miller throws in a Shaw or a Rattigan to keep the more traditional audience of The Orange Tree Theatre happy. Miller’s productions of rarely performed works by these playwrights are always interesting and even if Rattigan’s While The Sun Shines tells us little of life during the war this revival is rollickingly good fun.
The play, which was first seen in 1943, begins with a butler finding more than he bargained for in his master’s bedroom. Lord Harpenden – Bobby to his friends – has a man in his bed, and he appears to be American. Knowing Rattigan as we know him now these sleeping arrangements, while, of course, entirely innocent, conjure up a mischievous queerness that is never wholly dispelled by the play’s marriage plot. It is the eve of Bobby’s wedding to Lady Elizabeth, an officer in the RAF, but in a series of farcical scenes we see her fall under the spell of two Lieutenants, Joe the G.I. and Colbert, from the French army.
The fight against Hitler led to a blurring of social classes in Britain as men from all walks of life were required to fight alongside each other, and it wasn’t always true that aristocrats would become officers. Even though Bobby is an Earl and is worth several millions, he is only a rating in the Navy and The Admiralty refuse to promote him. Bobby’s two new friends, Joe and Colbert, may be of a lower social standing but they outstrip him in rank. But despite these inequalities the three men get on well, and while the two outsiders are initially awed by Bobby’s title, they soon treat him as an equal. Bobby doesn’t expect obsequious respect and offers his bed to both officers. At one point, the three of them share a bed, underlining the democracy, imagined or otherwise, of London in the Blitz.
It’s a fine script, and the actors have great fun with it. As Bobby, Philip Labey is in good form, bringing such a lovable quality to the aristocrat that we forgive his unearned privileges. He fatalistically accepts that his class is ‘doomed’. Sabrina Bartlett is splendid as Lady Elizabeth, and her responses to some very inappropriate (even more so in the post-#MeToo era) pick-up lines are handled with a comic light touch. Her drunken morning with Joe is one of the funniest scenes in the show.
Tattooed and dog-tagged, Julian Moore-Cook grows into his role as Joe, the naive but kind-hearted American and he delivers his cute curses – Hot Dog! Holy Mackerel – with aplomb. He’s the perfect foil to Jordan Mifsúd’s Colbert, earnest and self-important, with (this is a farce after all) a comedy French accent. But of all the characters, Elizabeth’s father The Duke of Ayr and Stirling is the most comic, and Michael Lumsden relishes this role as the hard-up Duke. Conversely, the working-class and working-girl Miss Crum, played with ease and confidence by Dorothea Myer-Bennett, doesn’t get many funny lines, but by the end she proves to be the most canny of all the characters, perhaps a sign of the social changes to come and heralded by the Labour Government two years later in 1945.
It’s a shame that there isn’t further examination of class in While The Sun Shines, but as the bombs fell over London, Rattigan’s farce must have proved the perfect antidote to searchlights and rations. And it’s still very funny today.
Runs until 27 July 2019 | Image: Contributed