What a wealth of meaning in that deceptively simple title. Typically Rattigan, I would suggest. At face value it sounds like so many plays of those inter-war years, a gay (in the old-fashioned sense of the word despite the fact that Rattigan was 'gay' in the contemporary sense), light-hearted romance, one might suppose, all pretty frocks, clipped British accents and everyone's emotions strictly laced up. And indeed, that's how it begins, but slowly, with exquisite, one might almost say surgical, skill, Rattigan strips away his characters' masks and exposes their reality to our unmerciful gaze.
Set in the late '30s just prior to the outbreak of war the play features a collection of what had been, a decade before, 'the bright young things of society'. Is there anything more pitiful than the sight and sound of the middle-aged clinging desperately to their youth? David Scott-Fowler (Anton Rogers) is a historian whose early promise has drained away with every one of the considerable number of tumblers of scotch he drinks on a daily basis. Self-absorbed, he has never committed himself to love in the fullest sense which demands giving as well as taking. His wife Joan (Gemma Jones) loves him with all her being but accedes to the fashion of the times, and what she supposes is the expectation of her husband, by hiding her feelings behind a mask of make-up and brittle gaiety. Like the self-absorbed juveniles they once were, they continue to prattle about nothing and party for anything.
Into this 'accident waiting to happen' situation bursts Helen, the sort of pseudo-smart, know-it-all, young woman who is supposed to be the girlfriend of David's young cousin to whom he is a sort of guardian employed as his secretary to help in his historical writing. The young girl falls for the older man, which can be bad enough, but even worse, the older man falls for her, too. Joan, the wife, remains watchful but passive behind her shield of ultra-sophistication but in the end David tells her that he's leaving her and going to set up home with young Helen. The mask is shattered and a deeply painful scene unsues when she breaks down and tells David's best friend what has occurred. Later, during one of those interminable, 'jolly' parties which has been the very stuff of their existence for the last 15 years, she quietly steps out onto the balcony of their Mayfair appartment and throws herself off. This act of frightful über-reality, much like the invasion of Poland which is about to happen, smashes into their false, self-regarding world, and everything is changed forever. At last, the mirror into which they have all gazed, transfixed, for so long is shattered.
This play opened just a few months before the outbreak of war which brought it to an abrupt end after only 60 performances. Consequently it was more or less forgotten. It is, in my opinion, a very great play indeed and I am so delighted that after decades of modernist or post-modernist tripe, the British theatre has rediscovered Rattigan, a man who was not so cruelly comic as Coward, or as bitter and twisted as Maugham, but instead a very human man of his times whose gaze was unflinching when it came to examining human nature.
This play was performed last week on BBC4 and for some reason it is not available for replaying via BBC i-pod - whatever the hell that is when it's at home! However, with a bit of luck they may repeat it on the terrestial channels and I would urge you all to watch it if they do. It is not only a terrific play but displays acting of the very highest standard. It is invidious to pick people out, but Anton Rogers's world-weary detachment was exactly right, and Gemma Jones as the wife was simply superb. I could have brained Imogen Stubbs as Helen, the young girl who marches with total self-confidence verging on arrogance straight into the emotional minefield, and that is a sign of just how excellent her performace was.
Hurrah for Rattigan, the true chronicler of his age, but a playwright for all time.