Review of Rattigan’s FIRST EPISODE at Jermyn Street Theatre

First Episode
Production photo from First Episode
Photo by Flavia Fraser-Cannon

There are times when you walk into a theatre and instinctively know the show you are about to see is going to work on every level. I’m really happy to say that “First Episode” at the Jermyn Street Theatre is just such a play. From the start, when viewing Neil Irish’s set – a 1930s undergraduate house sitting room – which you get to see from every angle as you take your seat, it is obvious that attention to detail is going to be the hallmark of this show.

First Episode the first play by Terence Rattigan, was written in 1933 with fellow undergraduate Philip Heimann and is the story of four friends at an unnamed red brick university – fairly obviously Oxford. There is the unsophisticated prude, Bertie (Adam Buchanan) who really doesn’t approve of the lifestyle of his housemates Philip (Alex Hope), David (Philip Labey) and Tony (Gavin Fowler), boys for whom being an undergraduate means alcohol, gambling and sex. In normal circumstances you would wonder why Bertie is in this house. He doesn’t really fit in, a fact he acknowledges himself, and the other boys tease him mercilessly. He does however have a vital role to play as a moral compass for the audience, and a comic turn when there is the potential for things to start getting a bit heavy. I really liked Bertie. He wants to be one of the boys, but his repressed upper-class breeding stops him fully letting go of himself, so publicly he takes a dim view of the antics of the others, while secretly being jealous of their lives and sneaking a look at their ‘adult orientated’ art books’ when he thinks nobody is about. The boys are admirably looked after by the unflappable James (a really lovely performance by Harry Gostelow) who does his best to reign in their excesses and ensure none of them fall foul of the Proctors resulting in being ‘sent down’.

First Episode Cast
Production photo from First Episode
Photo by Flavia Fraser-Cannon

The show isn’t really about their undergraduate work, which does seem to be a low priority for the chaps, but more about their extra-curricular activities. Tony is Actor/Producer for the University Drama Society and has managed to bring a professional London actress Margot Gresham (Caroline Langrishe) to the University to play against him in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra. Also in the mix is Joan (Molly Hanson) a good-time girl and would-be actress who is Tony’s current love interest, or so she thinks. Tony is in fact completely infatuated with Margot and the two of them embark on an affair with all the potential to hurt everyone involved. The other big part of Tony’s life is David – his contemporary and best friend – and their relationship is really tested by the introduction of Margot (who dislikes David as much as he loathes her) and Tony’s callous ‘handing-on’ of Joan to his friend. The relationship of David and Tony is really intriguing. In 1934 when the play was first performed, the Lord Chamberlain’s Department would not have let anything through that suggested David was probably in love with Tony – homosexuality was illegal in those far off days – but Rattigan manages to give that impression with his wonderful prose. It would have been very easy to over-emphasise the relationship but Director Tom Littler avoids the temptation to have David looking dewy eyed every time Tony walks in the room. But it is there all the same, even the play title when mentioned in context late in Act III hints at stories untold.

The cast have a fine time with the excellent script and the show is lovely in every respect, from costumes to incidental music the period feel is maintained throughout, even the scenery changes are accompanied with Charleston music and dances. One of the most impressive pieces of theatre I’ve seen for a long time occurred in the Derby Day scene, when all of the cast, except Margot are off-stage listening to the race. Margot has no lines but manages to convey everything that her character is going through at that point superbly – a true masterclass in acting from Caroline Langrishe, and a fabulous example of the all-round professionalism of this really marvellous show.

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

Primavera in association with Jermyn Street Theatre presents FIRST EPISODE
A comedy by Terence Rattigan
Co-authored by Philip Heimann
Directed by Tom Littler
Set design by Neil Irish
Costume design by Emily Stuart
Lighting design by Tim Mascall
Sound design by Matt Eaton
Starring Caroline Langrishe

Oxford. Summer 1933.
Tony and David have been best friends throughout their time at university, but does their loyalty go deeper? When Tony falls in love with the beautiful movie star Margot Gresham, in Oxford to appear in a play with the undergraduates, their relationship is put to the test.

Both touching and uproariously funny, First Episode is one of the earliest plays to deal explicitly with homosexuality, and for lovers of Rattigan’s work it is fascinating to see the first fruits of his creativity.

First Episode was Rattigan’s first play, written while he was still a student. It transferred to the West End and Broadway in 1934. Lost in the archives for decades, this is its first ever revival.

Primavera’s past productions at Jermyn Street Theatre include The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith, The Living Room, Bloody Poetry, Anyone Can Whistle and Saturday Night.

Caroline Langrishe leads the cast as Margot Gresham. Langrishe’s prolific career includes Charlotte Cavendish in Lovejoy and Georgina Channing in Judge John Deed for the BBC, as well as numerous roles on stage.

CAST: Adam Buchanan, Gavin Fowler, Harry Gostelow, Alex Hope, Molly Hanson, Philip Labey, Caroline Langrishe

Tuesday to Saturday 7.30pm, Saturday/Sunday matinees 3.30pm

Sunday 2nd November 2014

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