This early Rattigan play has had an interesting life. Set in the Second World War and premiered while that conflict still raged, it has since found itself rather upstaged by the author’s later and less comedic hits such as The Deep Blue Sea and The Browning Version.
Fitting that it should have made its reappearance at the Orange Tree in Kew Road since his first major play, First Episode, was staged at the adventurous, now long defunct, Q Theatre, just a mile up the road. Appropriate too that the Orange Tree should be reprising While The Sun Shines in this other time of sudden deaths and social constraint. Not that the theatre should be accused of opportunism, since the production had a previous life here, shortly before the invasion of the pandemic.
This may be a youthful Rattigan, not yet conversant with the emotional traumas of a passionate but marriage-bound Hester Collyer or a burnt-out classics teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris, but his eye for the pitfalls of marriage and duty is already sharp. Here we are, in Albany – not the Albany, please note, but plain Albany, in Piccadilly. Old residential rolls include Byron, Rees-Mogg, Priestley, Gladstone, Heath and – hence the accuracy of the portrayal – Rattigan. Rather than calling it an apartment block, his young lead, the Earl of Harpenden, prefers to think of the place as sets of rooms; slightly as though he is still an undergraduate of an ancient university, as his harmless outbreaks of uselessness might suggest.
Since the sexually ambivalent Earl and his creator were of the same age, it is tempting to see the young aristo as a projection, buoyant if somewhat at sea in the currents of social promiscuity. On the brink of his marriage to childhood sweetheart Lady Elizabeth Randall, he meets a handsome US bombardier and offers him a bed – nothing more, as far as we can tell – for the night. But since this is a bachelor pad, the bed is shared. He also befriends a young member of the Free French Army, and offers him a billet too.
Through some deft sleight of plot, both these men find themselves pursuing Lady Elizabeth while her groom-to-be seems to be tying up some very loose ends with a former, what, girlfriend, Mabel Crum. If it’s hard to be more specific about the extent of these encounters, this is perhaps on account of Rattigan’s appetite for taking the mickey out of English reserve.
Then there are the two supposedly adult figures, who turn out to be nothing of the sort: Horton, the Earl’s butler, whose discrete manner hides an incontinent gossip, and his father, the Duke of Ayr and Stirling, desperate to get Elizabeth married so that his new son-in-law can bail him out of his gambling debts.
All this against the backdrop of an England with its blinds down, its skies on fire, and the appetite for present thrills quickened by the threat of no future. At the risk of reading too much into the rough camaraderie between the Earl, the Yank and the Frenchman, these young men do come to resemble some triple alliance against a common enemy, never named but always out there. In this chaos, no-one seems to know quite what he or she is up to. Even the supposed father flings all his hopes, and money, at the horses’ hooves. Rattigan himself is at times in danger of losing the plot, though he crosses the line still holding the reins.
Orange Tree director Paul Miller marshals the unruliness well, with a seven-strong cast that stays on the right side of period parody. Rebecca Collingwood rises to the deceptive challenge of Lady Elisabeth, with Philip Labey resisting the urge to make this oddly complex Earl too Wodehousian. High-class mindless harrumphing from Michael Lumsden as his dad the Duke. This production helps to explain why the sun did indeed shine on the young Rattigan while he was making mayhem along with the hay.
Review by Alan Franks
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…
Cast: Rebecca Collingwood, Conor Glean, Sophie Khan Levy, John Hudson, Philip Labey, Michael Lumsden and Jordan Mifsúd.
Orange Tree Theatre Listings
1 Clarence Street, Richmond, TW9 2SA
Box Office: 020 8940 3633
20 November 2021 – 8 January 2022