Kenny Morgan

Theatre, Drama
2 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

A strangely academic rewrite of Terence Rattigan's 'The Deep Blue Sea'

'Kenny Morgan' returns to the Arcola in September 2016. This review is from the May run.

Playwright Terence Rattigan’s reaction in 1949 to the news that his former lover Kenny Morgan had committed suicide was to write ‘The Deep Blue Sea’, his 1952 masterpiece that obliquely but painfully dealt with the tragedy. In it, Kenny became a woman, Hester, living with a drunken young rake in a scrappy Ladbroke Grove flat, while Rattigan explored his own role in Kenny’s life and death in the form of Hester’s former husband, a high-court judge with an overbearing mother. This sideways spin on reality was as much as 1950s Britain – and presumably Rattigan himself – could take of the matter. 

Now the writer Mike Poulton, who brought ‘Wolf Hall’ to the stage, has rewritten the play (and, yes, this is very much a rewrite despite the protestations of the author’s foreword) so that Kenny and Rattigan become the characters they inspired. So Hester becomes Kenny; the judge becomes Rattigan (or ‘Terry’); Hester’s boyfriend becomes Kenny’s younger lover Alec… You get the picture. After Kenny (Paul Keating, a strong, exposing performance) tries and fails to gas himself, Kenny and Terry (Simon Dutton) meet in the young man’s squalid Camden flat and their conversation explores their decade-long on-off relationship. It’s an approach that banishes the obliqueness of Rattigan’s original play – it throws open the windows on the truth – but it also neuters much of the pain, partly because much of Terry’s presence is biographical rather emotional: Poulton awkwardly offloads his research into Terry’s mouth. Meanwhile Rattigan himself is written and performed as a celebrity not a person. 

In some ways, Poulton has set himself an impossible task: his writing – the characterisation especially – simply isn’t as good as Rattigan’s, so this inevitably feels inferior to its inspiration. It’s a compassionate and bold experiment but one that’s more academic than soaringly emotional. Lucy Bailey's production is strong on atmosphere: Robert Innes Hopkins’s set, with the smoky Camden flat structured around exposed copper gas pipes, is especially noteworthy. But Poulton’s decision to entomb his twenty-first-century perspective in a 1950s play is interesting only on paper.

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