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Suchet's masterly performance separates the men from the boys!



Review by David Munro

ORIGINALLY entitled Like Son, Man and Boy was intended as one half of a double bill of plays Terence Rattigan was writing for Rex Harrison.

As the first playlet – Like Father - was expanded into a full length play, Rattigan decided to the same with Like Son.

When he sent the play to Harrison, he refused to play it as he disliked the thought of appearing as homosexual even if the character was only pretending to be gay.

As a result, after it had been turned down by several other leading actors, including Olivier, the part was given to Charles Boyer who opened the play to mixed reviews at the Queen's Theatre in September 1963.

Rattigan, at that time, had been going through a bad period and he felt he needed to re-establish himself as a major playwright and that this was the play to do it.

He firmly believed this was the best play he had written but only Bernard Levin and TC Worsley, of the critics, agreed with him.

The play ran eight and a half weeks in London and was even less successful when it eventually arrived on Broadway, for which it had primarily been written.

The play takes place in the flat of Basil, the estranged son of Gregor Antonescu, a financier who is facing ruin and who is trying to avoid it by a merger with another company run by a financier, Herris.

Rumours are circulating that the merger will not occur and Gregor persuades his son to allow him to use his flat for a meeting with Herris to try and save his position.

The boy agrees, not realising that his father intends to use him as bait to entrap Herris into agreement by exploiting the fact that Herris is gay.

He realises what his father has done when Herris discreetly tries to proposition him.

He plays along to help his father but when Herris leaves, he storms out of the flat only to return when he discovers that the FBI have a warrant out to arrest Gregor.

He tries to help his father escape but his efforts are rejected by his father who has his own solution to the problem.

The theme of the play, apart from the politics of high finance, is the inability of men and women to accept love and reject those who try to love them.

Gregor’s assistant, Sven, plays the voice of reason and is the one Gregor can accept, up to a point, as he makes no emotional claims on him, which his wife and son do, and are therefore rejected.

The mainspring of the play, that of a man using his son to entrap a homosexual colleague for business purposes, is not a pleasant one, even now, particularly as Gregor pretends for purposes of plot that the boy is not his son, but his lover.

It is, however, even less pleasant in that Gregor is ruthless in his determination to achieve his ends even if that results in the exploitation and ultimate humiliation of those he uses to achieve it.

In the course of his machinations, he humiliates his son, his wife and to an extent himself by his inhumanity and callousness.

One can see why the play was rejected by so many leading actors.

Gregor has, on paper, no redeeming features and it is difficult to empathise with him, or to see why one should care to watch his despicable little schemes.

It, therefore, says a lot for the skill of Rattigan as a dramatist and, in this case, David Suchet as Gregor, that the audience remain to the end of the play.

Suchet turns with the assistance of a first rate cast, this rather squalid plot into the superb drama of a man's self deceit and self-destruction that Rattigan clearly envisaged.

While finagling his way out his difficulties, Suchet endows the man with a certain humanity and self-deprecating humour which draws the sting out of the nastier aspects of the plot.

 

At the end, when Sven and his wife, for their separate reasons, desert him, he accepts their going with resignation and humorous acceptance.

He creates an enigmatic veil over his relationship with his son.

Although he tells Sven he could love a daughter but not a son, his body language when he is with the boy belie this. His final rejection of the boy is ambivalent and you are left wondering if he rejects the boy because of the boy’s devotion, or whether he does it so the boy will not be penalised for helping his father escape.

His relationship with Sven (a superb performance by David Yelland), his devoted assistant with an eye to the main chance, is very subtly drawn.

Suchet makes it clear from their tete a tetes, which are Rattigan’s dramatic ploy to explain and develop his character, that while he is prepared to use him, he neither trusts him, nor is he surprised when, before Sven defects, he is requested to exculpate Sven from the final debacle.

Rattigan hints, but does not make it clear, that it could be Sven and not Herris who brought about the disaster, which looks like ruining Gregor and which he spends the play trying to avoid and David Yelland’s subtle performance makes such a theory viable.

Ben Silverstone delineates the tortured yet ultimately loyal and loving son with a sure hand.

His early scenes with his girlfriend, Carol, (a warm and tender performance by Jennifer Lee Jellicorse), reveal that, like his father, he rejects her love as he can’t cope with it.

As the play develops, so he develops the character so as to appear the obverse side of his father; the same characteristic traits but with an ability to use them for humanity rather than against it.

His final scene with his father, which is, through the performance of the two actors, emotionally charged but not overplayed, leaves it open that he will profit by accepting their similarities and use the knowledge for a better purpose in life.

Herris (Colin Stinton) and his accountant, Beeston (Will Huggins), have one effective scene which is dominated by Suchet’s bravura performance as he draws Herris into his web. Nevertheless, they still managed to emerge bloody but unbowed, a remarkable feat in itself and one for which they both deserve credit.

Countess Antonescu (Emma Ferguson ) is both a pawn in her husband’s schemes and in Rattigan’s clear desire not to have a male dominated cast.

She has one effective scene with Suchet where she tries to win back his attention, and a second when she runs scared at the coming disaster and disassociates herself from it, allowing Suchet a telling piece of business with her mink cape which he silently hands her as a gesture of dismissal.

The action is well set off by Simon Higlett’s two room and poverty stricken apartment ,which was a telling back ground to the drama it encompassed.

Finally, one cannot overlook how much Maria Aitken’s direction gave in thrusting the play from a forgotten piece into a really first class play.

Despite its many flaws, I think even Rattigan, who was notoriously picky with his directors in his latter days, would have appreciated that she has finally created the reality of what he always believed – that this was the best play he ever wrote.

An opinion which, with his track record, is open to discussion but I cannot believe that any one seeing this production and David Suchet’s performance would not agree that it deserves far more appreciation than it received on its original showing.

If this time it does not achieve the respect and acclaim it deserves in the West End, I shall be very surprised and I hate surprises!

Perhaps it will accomplish the ultimate irony of obtaining the award named after the Actor who turned it down those many years ago – I sincerely hope so.

Man And Boy by Terence Rattigan.
Directed by Maria Aitken; Designer, Simon Higlett; Lighting, Mick Hughes; Sound, Howard Davidson.
CAST: David Suchet; Jennifer Lee Jellicorse; Ben Silverstone; David Yelland; Colin Stinton; Will Huggins; Emma Ferguson.
Presented by Michael Whitehall & Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.
Richmond Theatre, The Green, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 IQJ.
Mon, Nov 22 – Sat, November 27, 2004.
Evenings: 7.45pm / Matinees: Wed & Sat 2.30pm.
Box Office: 020 8940 0088

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