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While the Sun Shines at The Orange Tree Theatre

John Hudson in While the Sun Shines - Orange Tree Theatre - photo by Helen Murray.
John Hudson in While the Sun Shines – Orange Tree Theatre – photo by Helen Murray.

Those of us who love the works of Terence Rattigan will invariably have a favourite Rattigan play. Almost certainly, The Winslow Boy, Flare Path, The Deep Blue Sea and Separate Tables will top most lists. Little attention is paid, however, to Rattigan’s 1943 West End hit, While the Sun Shines, an effervescent bubble of a play and an affectionate wink to Shakespearean comedy and its familiar tropes.

Keeping in mind Rattigan’s personal lustre, While the Sun Shines can be likened to an elegant champagne flute brimming with a heady mix of wealth and sexual desire, swirling in mists of mockery for the English upper classes, while simultaneously enjoying their penchant for vulgarity and excessive waste.

The play’s homage to The Bard is teased out in its swift pacing and tomfoolery: a happy ending between a previously estranged couple, a farcical encounter with mistaken identity, and a tug of war between moral virtues and wild abandonment – a frothy mixture of well-crafted light-hearted entertainment to lift the spirits of a 1940s combat-weary nation.

While the Sun Shines is set during World War II in the Albany chambers of Robert, Earl of Harpenden (Philip Labey), a most feckless but charming chap, on the eve of his marriage to Lady Elisabeth Randall (Sabrina Bartlett). Lady Elisabeth is an inept member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, one who is incapable of maintaining her sergeant’s stripes, while the Earl of Harpenden is a seaman who, after years of duty, fails to convince the Admiralty he is worthy of promotion.

Lord Harpenden’s (aka Robert) affection for Lady Elisabeth is complicated by his long-term relationship with Mabel Crum (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), an earthy woman who enjoys sex and doesn’t care who knows it. As the play opens we learn that Robert has befriended a drunken American serviceman, Lieutenant Mulvaney (Julian Moore-Cook), who is sleeping off a massive hangover in Robert’s bed. Lieutenant Mulvaney seems to be in need of female companionship and Robert generously offers him the sexual favours of Miss Crum, who he is about to dump prior to his marriage to Lady Elisabeth.

Sadly for her, Lady Elisabeth is the daughter of The Duke of Ayr & Stirling (Michael Lumsden), a gambler and wastrel who is demanding a slice of Robert’s fortune in return for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Rattigan’s deft handling of sexual relations between men and women barely conceals the play’s darker premise – that of women as chattel to be passed among men as tangible goods. And, as if it were beyond the emotional comprehension of an Englishman, Rattigan introduces a Free French Officer, Lieutenant Colbert (Jordan Mifsúd), who is in love with Lady Elisabeth and explains in great detail the fiery passions that exist within her.

Director Paul Miller masters the task of creating clarity from an extremely chaotic narrative, one which demands much of its excellent actors and the highly volatile characters they play.

Throughout the entrances and exits of these characters – many in stages of need, hysterics and demand – it is only the manservant, Horton (John Hudson), who sees all and says nothing. It is as if the act of servitude itself exists on the periphery of social discourse – bereft of want and desire – a position so barren as to eliminate the need for any human response.

Although written more than 70 years ago – and with jokes about female promiscuity more than slightly dated – Rattigan’s observations about the nonchalant abuse of the ‘lower classes’ and the unequal power structures that exist between men and women, are still relevant today.

But while it might contain a subtle message or two, While the Sun Shines is first and foremost a rollicking good comedy with so many laughs you might opt to see it twice.

4 stars

Review by Loretta Monaco

I’ll tell you but you won’t believe me. I slept in the same bed with an earl… No, not a girl, stupid, an earl.
On the eve of his wedding, the young Earl of Harpenden – Bobby to his friends – has offered his room to Joe, an American soldier he drunkenly met the night before. When Bobby’s fiancée Lady Elizabeth turns up, Joe makes a move, thinking she must be Bobby’s ex, the wonderful Mabel Crum. But a Free French lieutenant also has eyes for her… And to complicate matters, Bobby’s future father in law turns up too.
London in the Blitz, and identities get confused: time to make hay…

Orange Tree Artistic Director Paul Miller directs the first major London production in a generation of Terence Rattigan’s Blitz-set comedy While the Sun Shines. It follows his acclaimed production of Rattigan’s French Without Tears, which played two sold-out runs at the OT before touring across the country.

The cast is Sabrina Bartlett (Victoria, Versailles, Poldark), John Hudson (The Women of Lockerbie), Philip Labey (Shakespeare in Love, On Chesil Beach), Michael Lumsden (The Philanderer, The Archers), Jordan Mifsúd (Misalliance), Julian Moore-Cook (The Rolling Stone, The Lieutenant of Innishmore) and Dorothea Myer-Bennett (The Lottery of Love, The Philanderer). The Designer is Simon Daw, Lighting Designer Mark Doubleday, Sound Designer & Composer Elizabeth Purnell and Casting Consultant Vicky Richardson.

An Orange Tree Theatre production
While the Sun Shines
BY TERENCE RATTIGAN
7 June – 27 July 2019
https://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/

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