Last year the National revived Rattigan’s bleakly stunning masterpiece The Deep Blue Sea, in which the reservoirs of pain caused by unrequited love and co-dependent relationships run deep. Now the Menier comes up with the much rarer Love in Idleness, previously seen at Jermyn Street Theatre in 2011 in Rattigan’s original, unproduced version Less than Kind.
In the 1940s he rewrote the piece – at the behest of US theatre stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne – and retitled it Love in Idleness for a production that premiered in the West End in 1944.
Now director Trevor Nunn has nipped and tucked the two plays into a new version that casts a fond period glow over an old-fashioned play exploring another kind of co-dependency: that between a mother and her son, when they are reunited after his evacuation to Canada for four years during the Second World War. He’s now nearly 18 and returns home to find his widowed mother living with a wealthy industrialist, a munitions cabinet minister – a man he takes an instant dislike to. He forces his mother to choose between them.
With heavily underlined references to Hamlet, specifically invoked here, it sometimes feels a little dramaturgically clunky. But Nunn’s production is played with such pitch-perfect mood and period nuance that it emerges as a scintillating rediscovery.
Eve Best, who has been absent from London stages for far too long, is one of our very finest actors and invests the mother with heartbreaking feeling as she surrenders her own personal happiness to keep her son happy.
As that son, Edward Bluemel catches his arrogant sense of youthful entitlement with an appropriately irritating vigour, and Anthony Head and Helen George are also marvellous as the mother’s new lover and his former wife respectively.