Tuesday, May 31, 2016

'Kenny Morgan' at the Arcola Theatre, 30th May 2016

A pallid body lies in front of a hissing gas fire. It's impossible to know whether it's dead or alive. It's an image equal parts striking and miserable; the famous perfect opening to Terrence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea. It's precisely echoed in Mike Poulton's latest play, yet in place of the desperately lonely Hester Collyer, we find the slowly asphyxiating Kenny Morgan.

Kenny Morgan (Paul Keating) was the real-life lover of Terrence Rattigan, who gasped his last in a crappy Camden bedsit in 1949. Poulton imagines his last day alive, exploring how a promising, handsome and talented young man reaches the point of no return. 

Kenny Morgan is essentially a reverse engineering of The Deep Blue Sea, Poulton performing a kind of psychological autopsy on Terrence Rattigan and imagining the events that might have inspired his fiction (though the play works just as well for audiences with no knowledge of his work). The occupants of Hester Collyer's tenement are reimagined as dowdily kindhearted clerk Dafydd Lloyd (Matthew Bulgo), fussy landlady Mrs Simpson (Marlene Sidaway) and struck-off doctor Mr Ritter (George Irving). In the first act these characters discover the prone form of Kenneth after an initial suicide attempt and revive him, trying to puzzle out the whys, whos and whats of the situation.

Their amateur detective work quickly leads to a visit from the esteemed Mr Rattigan (Simon Dutton), whose presence begins to fill in the blanks of Kenny's past and state of mind. Later we meet Alec Lennox (Pierro Niel-Mee), Kenny's current lover. As we learn more about the situation, the squalor of the tenement grows increasingly oppressive - a pressure cooker of emotions, betrayal and dashed hopes. 

Kenny Morgan is painfully straightforward in how it treats suicide. Each character does their utmost to drag Kenny back from the brink; treating him with sincere kindness, attention, empathy, intelligence and offering multiple solutions that might save him from death's embrace. Each character experiences their own guilt that they aren't doing enough to assist him, though understands that, ultimately, Kenny's life lies in his own hands. Rattigan's own guilt would manifest in The Deep Blue Sea, his most lauded work and a painfully straightforward example of transmuting your most painful experiences into art.

Lucy Bailey's production does a remarkably job of supporting Poulton's powerful writing, settling for a straightforward naturalism and refreshing lack of theatrical gimmickry. It's fun to puzzle your way through minimalist or chronologically jumbled abstract set-ups, but there's something reassuring and solid about a talented cast bringing their characters to life in a detailed period setting.

The room, created by Robert Innes Hopkins, is a masterpiece of subtly miserable set design. Glance upwards and you can see the cheaply stippled ceiling, each panel in the process of being invaded by Rorschach blossoms of damp. Look down and you see the threadbare carpet stretching to cover the bare floorboards. The one concession to symbolism are the walls, which are composed of a skeleton of gas pipes that ominously cage the action, neatly mirroring the events of the play.

Within this you get a bevy of remarkable performances; ranging from the faintly tragic yet reassuringly (and sonorously) Welsh presence of Matthew Bulgo, to Marlene Sidaways simultaneously comic and realistic landlady, right through to George Irving's struck off doctor, through whom seem to leak a wider historical context of a civilisation dealing with the reverberations of World War II and the holocaust.

Centre stage are Simon Dutton's Rattigan and Keating's Kenny. Dutton is an impossibly solid stage presence, his body language, composed features and measured delivery starkly contrasting with the fretfulness of everyone else. The way he navigates the set underlines its squalor, representing a wider world of luxury and success that we (and the rest of the cast) can only dream of. The performance makes it all too obvious how painful his internal rift is; caught between his public reputation and his then forbidden love.

Keating's performance begins guarded and withdrawn, but really comes to life around Dutton. It's an abject lesson in self-loathing, tiptoeing at the border of audience sympathies. The character spends so long being a miserable sadsack, apparently hungry for abuse, that in the hands of a lesser actor we could be urging him to get the hell on with it. Yet Keating makes Morgan's personal tragedy resonate; particularly excelling when the character descends into histrionics.

Poulton, without being too explicit about it, underlines the tragic homophobia of the era and encourages the audience to imagine how straightforward and socially acceptable these relationships would be today. I doubt even the stuffiest 'disgusted in Tunbridge Wells' could summon up any shock at a prominent playwright being in a gay relationship.

That's the silver lining in an intrinsically sad play bookended by death; these characters may have been suffocated by social bondage; consumed by self-loathing; and fear of being discovered. But things did get better. In dramatising Kenny Morgan's sadly curtailed life, Poulton not only reminds us how good we've got it, but how far we've come.


Kenny Morgan is at the Arcola Theatre until 18th June. Tickets here. 

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