The little Jermyn Street Theatre, which seats seventy and sits under an Italian restaurant just off Piccadilly Circus, has produced some remarkable work under the stewardship of Tom Littler and Penny Horner.
Over the past two weeks they have brought two rehearsed readings to YouTube, performed through Zoom by actors in isolation and then streamed for a week each.
The first was Tony Cox’s The Skin Game (no relation to the Galsworthy play filmed by Hitchcock in 1931), which focused on film star Merle Oberon (Skye Hallam) and plastic surgery.
The second was Rattigan’s last great play In Praise of Love, which used the real-life story of actors Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall, and her early death from leukaemia, as something of an inspiration.
It’s a complex play which relies on a claustrophobic gathering of people in one place and the tensions which come from hiding their feelings, misleading each other, and essentially leading to stalemate (or checkmate, as two chess games are key to the play’s focus).
Last year I was in the theatre proper at Jermyn Street to see two of the four actors performing here (Andrew Francis and Jack Klaff) in the political piece The Ice Cream Boys. Playing chess then, as of here. Playing with each other’s politics and personalities.
There’s a bit of that here in Rattigan’s text, as the boorish and repressed Sebastian (Klaff) needles his “closest friend” Mark (Francis), who is clearly taken with Lydia (Issy van Randwyck) the exotic wife married in Berlin by Sebastian when he was a government spy.
Lydia and Sebastian both reveal truths to Mark, but not to each other or their son, Joey (recent Guildhall graduate Mackenzie Heynes). As the audience, we have to sift out the untruths and conflicting accounts of illness, love, infidelity, trauma and more to reach a conclusion.
As a play which relies on people being together (Lydia/Sebastian, Lydia/Mark, Joey/Lydia, Sebastian/Mark), the Zoom setting is not wholly successful when it comes to characters sharing a kiss or evoking a meaningful look between them.
However, Cat Robey’s direction has made a powerful and ultimately touching drama work well in a succession of moments which focus on the individual. Van Randwyck’s opening of the hatbox. Francis’s realisation of the situation from both sides. Klaff’s slow peeling off of the reserve of army training into the regret of years of unfulfilled marriage.
Heynes makes a striking debut as Joey, smothered by his mother and set aside by his father. Although, like everything else in this thoughtful play, the truth is much more complex.
It’s certainly true that these readings are not truly theatre as we know it, and there are certainly issues that can be ironed out in time around utilisation of cameras and positioning of players. In this case, the issues fitted the characters as they were portrayed: restless Lydia who finds it hard to stay still, reliant Sebastian who can’t get a lamp to stay on.
In Praise of Love is a strong piece of drama with some moments which would be electric in a fully-staged production. It’s hard to show any intense relationship from separate screens which is why I’m impressed this difficult piece did work so well. The words did their job and the performances were uniformly strong.
Going back to the Harrisons, though, their story was rather different, with Kay Kendall being much younger and the marriage contracted with the knowledge her life would be short. The couple in In Praise of Love have a marriage of nearly thirty years, complicated by a wartime courtship, and a much smaller age difference. There could have been a vibrancy between them if only they’d recognised it.
I’d recommend this one to show how a classic piece can be shown in a medium never designed to present it, and applaud all those involved. Hopefully the piece – rarely performed – can be given its full due and consideration on the live stage in the future.
In Praise of Love is available to view for free on the Jermyn Street Theatre YouTube Channel until 4 June.