'While the Sun Shines' returns to Orange Tree Theatre in November 2021. This review is from May 2019.
‘While the Sun Shines’ drips with innuendo – from the moment muscular American lieutenant Mulvaney (Julian Moore-Cook) blearily emerges, hungover, in his boxers from the bedroom of the Earl of Harpenden (Philip Labey). The play takes some time to reveal that he’s just crashed there. If a script had a face, this one’s would be the picture of innocence.
A walloping hit in its day, Terence Rattigan’s 1943 farce, which takes place in Harpenden’s chambers in wartime 1940s Britain, is a far cry from the repressed angst of his later plays like ‘The Winslow Boy’ or ‘The Deep Blue Sea’. Director Paul Miller doesn’t quite get his cast to wink at the audience after every loaded line they deliver, but his production definitely gets a kick out of them.
Harpenden is to marry Lady Elisabeth Randall (Sabrina Bartlett), daughter of the Duke of Ayr and Stirling (Michael Lumsden), a feckless chancer and gambler. But she has second thoughts after Colbert (Jordan Mifsúd), a French lieutenant she encounters on a train, insists it’s not true love. Elisabeth breaks off the engagement and chaos ensues.
It’s silly, frothy nonsense, with a hint of edge. Rattigan is playing dumb to have fun at the expense of his cast of posh or posturing male stereotypes. And war creeps around the edges of Harpenden’s rarefied world. He’s in the Royal Navy but he treats his uniform like dress-up. There’s a subversive charge to watching Harpenden, Mulvaney and Colbert, essentially the Allied Forces, in full uniform, behave like overgrown kids.
But this is hardly ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ satire. The production mostly sustains itself with a ‘Jeeves and Wooster’-style lunacy, aided by some well-pitched performances. Lumsden gets plenty of mileage out of the blustering Duke of Ayr. As Harpenden, Labey floats through the play with easy charm and a smile, on a cloud of privileged affability. The production is at its best when they’re most buffoonish.
Bartlett gives Elisabeth a welcome amount of eccentricity and the women are ultimately the grown-ups in the play. Generally, however, they’re either falling in love or being fallen in love with. Mabel Crum, an ex-flame of Harpenden’s and, importantly, not posh, is an intriguing character. In Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s hands, Mabel is superbly funny, with a clear-eyed view of the world. You want more of her.