Britain in February 1949 was a very different place to the one we know today. The Second World War may have ended but its repercussions were still being felt. Clothes rationing had just ended and the British Empire was in the process of being dismantled. In December of the previous year, the United Nations had adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but for some humans, those rights were not universal. If you were a homesexual man in Britian in 1949, then you lived a life in secrecy and fear, for the law said that the person you were was an abomination, and somehow you had to find a way to live with that. This then, is the backdrop to Mike Poulton’s play Kenny Morgan receiving its world premiere at the Arcola Theatre.
In a run down boarding house in Clapham, Dafyyd Lloyd (Matthew Bulgo) is heading off to work when he notices a smell of gas coming from Flat 3. He calls the landlady Mrs Simpson (Marlene Sidaway) and the two of them enter the flat to find Kenny (Paul Keating) lying on the floor in front of the gas fire. Luckily, the meter has run out and so the gas was cut off before Kenny succumbed fully to the fumes. Mrs Simpson, who is desperate to avoid a whiff of scandal, enlists the help of former doctor, Mr Ritter (George Irving) to assist Kenny. Mrs Simpson’s concerns are very real, as Kenny shares – in the biblical sense – his flat with another young gentleman by the name of Alec (Pierro Niel-Mee). Both men are involved in the theatre, and Kenny was once a close personal friend of the writer Terence Rattigan (Simon Dutton). Kenny’s life is complicated. He is not really working, in debt and his relationship with Alec is rocky to say the least. Alec himself is young, naive, self centred and probably a bit confused – as well as Kenny, he seems to be having some form of relationship with a young lady called Norma (Lowenna Melrose). Unsure of his feelings for Alec, and Terence for that matter, and Alec’s feelings for him, it is no wonder that Kenny is feeling confused, despondent and unsure what to do with his life.
Kenny Morgan is, right from the start, an intense, gripping piece of drama which tells the true tale of what happened in 1949 to a man who lived in Camden. Mike Poulton has written a fascinating tale, not only because of the story itself, but also as a indication of British society at this time. Being homosexual was illegal but, at the same time, it went on. Every person living in the house knows that Kenny and Alec are not just roommates but are in fact boyfriends. But, in true British style, the elephant in the room is completely ignored until it sits on the sofa and trumpets loudly. Kenny’s suicide attempt scared the landlady for two reasons. Firstly, because if he had died the police would have had to be called and they would have found out he was gay, but secondly, because attempting to commit suicide was illegal in 1949. Unlike today, people trying to kill themselves would not be offered help or support. Instead, they would be arrested and thrown into jail. Not necessarily the best course of action for a vulnerable young man you might think. I liked the style of the writing which, particularly in the conversations between Terence and Kenny which were in wonderfully stilted in the way that the English middle and upper classes use when they don’t want to say too much. I loved the set, by Robert Innes Hopkins which really created a run down boarding house so well and I will give a shout out to Neil McKeown for some of the best and most believable sounds effects I’ve heard in a theatre for a long while. Every sound was right and came from the place you expected it to be, as opposed to a single speaker pretending to be everywhere.
Turning to the actors, I loved Paul Keating as Kenny. There were times, such as at the end of Act II when I really wanted to run down to the stage and give him a hug. He was quiet and unassuming, and rather endearingly, very apologetic. Yet at the same time, there was a fierce loyalty to Alec which shone through no matter what he had suffered at his hands. I have to say, I really disliked Alec from the moment he came on the stage. Pierro played him beautifully and my dislike of him grew the longer he was visible. In fact, I even called him a very rude name under my breath in Act III. Brilliant acting. All of the characters were ultimately really great and portrayed brilliantly.
Unlike, I’m guessing, the majority of the audience, I had no idea who Kenny Morgan was or indeed what had become of him, and so this was all new to me. I was worried that at 150 minutes, including interval, this production was going to get a bit boring but, the reality is, I was totally mesmerised and, although I’m not sure I fully understood Kenny’s motivations, I was completely hooked on his story from the first to last moment, and as I left the theatre, I started reading the play text to see if I could bring about the ending I felt he really deserved.
Review by Terry Eastham
February, 1949. The tenants of a boarding house in Camden Town, alerted by the smell of gas from Number Three, discover a young man lying unconscious – and the signs of a suicide attempt. Hastening towards his address book, they phone the first name on the list. It is none other than Mr Terence Rattigan.
Kenny Morgan is the unflinching new play from Mike Poulton (Tony nominated for his Broadway versions of Fortune’s Fool, Wolf Hall, and Bring Up The Bodies).
A gripping tale of secrets and lies, destructive passions and unrequited love, it shines a light on the turbulent relationship between the actor Kenneth Morgan and Terence Rattigan, one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated playwrights.
Drawing on the real-life events behind one of Rattigan’s greatest plays, this heart-wrenching drama premieres at Arcola in a powerful new production by Lucy Bailey (Fortune’s Fool, Old Vic; Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s Globe). Two-time Olivier nominee Paul Keating takes on the title role, opposite Simon Dutton as Terence Rattigan.
Arcola Theatre presents
World Premiere of a new play
by Mike Poulton
Director Lucy Bailey
Designer Robert Innes Hopkins
Sound Designer Neil McKeown
Lighting Designer Jack Knowles
Cast: Matthew Bulgo, Simon Dutton, George Irving, Paul Keating, Lowenna Melrose, Pierro Niel-Mee, Marlene Sidaway
18 MAY—18 JUNE