On the 8th of May 1956, Terence Rattigan - at the time, the leading British playwright - attended the world premiere of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. Afterwards, when asked by a reporter what he thought of it, Rattigan churlishly replied that Osborne just seemed to be saying 'Look Ma, I'm not Terence Rattigan!' Whatever grain of truth this comment may have contained, it was certainly very poorly timed; the Angry Young Men suddenly became the Hot New Thing, and Rattigan's theatrical career went into near-terminal decline, virtually overnight.
Looking back now (more in sorrow than in anger), it all feels very different: Osborne's kitchen-sink realism, and his bitter misogyny, looks oddly dated and old-fashioned, while Rattigan's elegant and urbane drama - like a cross between Oscar Wilde and NoŽl Coward - seems much more humane and inherently more theatrical. In any case, Rattigan's work is ripe for revival, and Abingdon Drama Club are to be commended for playing their part in this long-overdue renaissance.
Separate Tables (first performed in the West End in 1954) is set in a private hotel in Bournemouth in the 1950s, and consists of two interlinked one-act plays. The first play, 'Table by the Window', centres around a disgraced politician and his ex-wife, revisiting the ruins of their failed marriage. The second play, 'Table Number Seven', is set eighteen months after the events of the previous play, and focuses on the unlikely friendship between a repressed spinster and a retired army officer, who turns out to be a fraud. Both plays are connected through the genteel but slightly run-down setting, and through a host of secondary characters largely composed of the hotel staff and the permanent residents - characters who are marginal in one act become more central in the next, and vice-versa.
This double structure - two overlapping acts; two odd couples; the same set of quarrelsome but mutually supportive characters - broadly reflects the play's central theme: a wry and gently probing study of relationships, both personal and social, in post-war Britain. (Interestingly, in the first Broadway production of the play in 1956, the principal roles in both plays were portrayed by the same actors, which is a device I'd have liked to have seen tried out in this current production.)
Some critics have suggested that this 'doubling' effect - a feature common in Wilde's drama as well - is largely a consequence of Rattigan's homosexuality, and is a subtle means of broaching the love that dare not speak its name in the sexually-repressed climate of the 1950s. There may well be some truth in this observation, but the double structure of the piece works equally well as a stirring critique of an unforgiving and divisive class system, where working-class aspiration and middle-class affectation are locked into a vicious circle of mistrust and fear. In this respect alone, Terence Rattigan seems at least as radical as John Osborne.
In the first act, we see the personal and psychological fallout resulting from this insidious class system: a promising young Labour MP from a working-class background (Christopher Kendrick) has lost both his career and his marriage after physically attacking his wife, a model and a socialite (Anna McNeil). Years later they meet in the hotel, seemingly by accident, and resume their passionate but brittle affair. It's a rather lengthy act, and at times it feels slightly overwritten, but it's a measure of our concern for these characters that when they make their tentative agreement to give the relationship another go, we can't help hoping it will all work out (even though we know it probably won't).
The second act is a slightly more off-beat variation on the same theme: Sybil, a shy upper middle-class spinster (Ruth Hawkins), who is bullied by her overbearing mother (Lynne Smith), finally finds the courage to stand up for herself when the object of her affections, a suave but rakish ex-officer (Jon Crowley), is revealed to be an impostor. When Major Pollock receives a suspended sentence for 'lewd conduct' in a cinema, he tries to hide the newspaper report from his fellow residents, fearing (correctly) that they will try to have him evicted. However, the real reason for the community's anger is not his lecherous behaviour per se but the fact that he has fabricated a middle-class identity for himself, in a doomed attempt to escape his underprivileged past. In a poignant denouement, Pollock is given another chance to redeem himself through the innate kindness of the reserved and troubled Sybil, and the play ends on a note of tentative hope for a more tolerant and inclusive society.
The upstairs-downstairs structure of the play allows for some lovely interplay between the residents and the staff of the hotel, and Abingdon Drama Club fully exploit the ensemble possibilities. Alex Codling and Paul Mann do a witty double-act as the droll young couple hoping - but ultimately failing - to avoid the mistakes of their uptight elders, while Ruth Tschudin and Vicki Grant garner the best laughs of the evening as the world-weary waitresses. Geraldine McTier, Jill Calvert and Keith Hales provide solid support as the hotel regulars, and Colette Lardner-Browne brings a quiet dignity to pivotal role of Miss Cooper, the all-seeing but discreet hotel manageress.
Considering the relatively large cast, and given the space restrictions of the rather cramped Unicorn stage, director Lin Beekar does a fine job in choreographing the movement of the actors. The set is simple but effective, the lighting is suitably low key, and the costumes (especially the period hairdos) contribute nicely to that delicate mixture of glamour and drabness required by Rattigan's script. Separate Tables is a well-made play done well, and Abingdon Drama Club should be proud of this charming restoration of a minor English classic.
Keith Hopper - 22/4/08