The Art of Concealment

Giles Cole’s new play focuses on the private life of British writer Terence Rattigan, who is very much in vogue at the moment – an irony that would not have been lost on the mid-twentieth century playwright. Last year saw the release of a Rachel Weisz-starring film adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea and an acclaimed revival of wartime play Flare Path.

In 2009, Chichester Festival staged a production of Separate Tables (1954) based on the script the play premiered with in New York. This melancholic masterpiece contains a scene in which a retired English army officer’s fall from grace is revealed to be the consequence of his arrest for picking up boys in public toilets. This unveiling of a truth coded for decades in the British version as an incident involving a woman in a cinema goes to the heart of what appeals about Rattigan’s best and most affecting work.

At a time when our magazines are filled with emotionally incontinent ‘celebrities’ pouring out their hearts for a hefty fee, the complex nature of Rattigan’s restraint is refreshing. His plays are full of poignant pauses and stiff upper lips that hint at trembling. They encourage us to read behind the lines, to treat his carefully economical dialogue as an extended metaphor for truths that are almost always left unsaid. And perhaps the greatest temptation of all is to read this body of work as an anguished response to the homosexuality Rattigan refused publicly to acknowledge for much of his life.

The Art of Concealment opens on an elderly Rattigan reflecting on his fading career and the loves he has lost. As he recedes into the shadows, a mournful spectator, Dominic Tighe takes up the reins as the playwright’s younger self; charting his progress from Harrow and his early success with comedy French Without Tears through to his emergence as critic’s darling with The Winslow Boy and The Browning Version. The second act turns the spotlight on Rattigan’s reversal of fortunes after the second world war, including his spats with acid-tongued critic Kenneth Tynan and the emergence of a new generation of audiences more interested in kitchen sinks than posh drawing rooms.

There is much to enjoy here, not least a deliciously bitchy turn by Graham Pountney as Rattigan’s director friend, Freddie, who hogs many of the play’s best and sharpest lines. There is also a wealth of fascinating biographical trivia to absorb, including the fact that Rattigan originally wrote the role of ageing classics teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version for John Gielgud. Meanwhile, Alistair Findlay brings an effectively understated sense of tragedy to the older incarnation of the playwright, a man brought low by ill-health and the weight of his regrets. His scene towards the end of the play with a disappointed ‘Aunt Edna’ (a character inspired by Rattigan’s real-life label for fans of his work) is particularly poignant.

Unfortunately, a clunky, rigidly episodic structure means that everything feels more leaden-footed than it should. This is particularly true of the first half, which reduces Findlay to the role of continuity announcer between scenes from his younger self’s life. More importantly, the play fails to resolve a problem that plagues many biographical dramas about artists: namely, how to talk about its protagonist’s creative as well as personal existence. Cole’s distribution of long speeches about artistic inspiration and torment among his characters results in some awkward dialogue that too often lacks resonance. An overly mannered and petulant turn by Tighe as the younger Rattigan doesn’t help to bridge the gap between the writer and his writing.

Director Knight Mantell’s production has much to recommend it, from Daniel Bayle’s and Charlie Hollway’s satisfyingly ambiguous performances as Kenneth Morgan and Michael Franklin, the pretty young men who loved and used Rattigan in equal measure, to a second half that covers a much richer emotional terrain. But, as Cole himself has the theatre critic Cuthbert Worsley tell Michael when he claims to be able to identify Rattigan’s previous relationship in his most recent play, the best writing take fragments of reality and turns them into something universal. Ultimately, The Art of Concealment’s tell-all approach feels too expository for its subject; somehow lessening a man whose work draws its power from the things left out, the tension between knowing and not knowing.

On at Jermyn Street Theatre from 9 to 28 January

First published by Exeunt