His father is dead, his mother is carrying on with a powerful politician and the son is so unhappy that he dresses in black and harbors murderous thoughts. No, not “Hamlet.” It’s “Less Than Kind,” a “lost” play by mid-20th century playwright Terence Rattigan. While no one could claim it as an unjustly neglected classic, Adrian Brown’s spry, nicely acted revival makes a gently entertaining case for this (s)light comedy. Set towards the end of World War II, the play dates (in every sense) from the stiff-upper-lip era of Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter.”
Rattigan sets up the “Hamlet”-like scenario via smart, widowed, Olivia Brown (Sara Crowe) – think Gertrude but with more telephone chatter – who’s living in comfortable Westminster and in sin with senior politician Sir John Fletcher (pin-sharp Michael Simkins). Although the maid may be turning a blind eye, Olivia’s 17-year-old son, Michael (David Ormond), lately returned from five years out of harm’s way in Canada, is scandalized.
Ormond makes Michael the last word in priggishness. He’s horrified that not only has his mother relinquished all morality for the advantages of Fletcher’s wealth and position but that she should be consorting with a “fascist” whose views entirely contradict his own left-wing zeal. Not just a fascist, a married one, too.
Comic mileage is spun from Michael’s naive self-importance, which extends to him inveigling Fletcher’s wife (marvelously poised Caroline Head) to come and see the sordid situation for herself. The first half, however, ends with a shock as Olivia’s allegiance is suddenly put to a serious test with a surprising outcome.
Ultimately, Rattigan ducks his own challenge. Fletcher acknowledges Michael’s self-dramatizing manner as a “Hamlet” game, but instead of delivering on the parallel he jettisons it in favour of witty banter and plotting that was already old-fashioned when first written.
This year marks the centenary of Rattigan’s birth. His considerable reputation rests on beautifully composed, dramatically acute studies of repression and restraint in plays like “The Browning Version” and his masterpiece, “The Deep Blue Sea.” “Less Than Kind” is not in their league, but its lightness of touch is sweet.
Rewritten as a vehicle for the Lunts, it wound up on Broadway in 1946 playing 18 months as “O Mistress Mine.” This newly disinterred version is unlikely to be going anywhere in a hurry but the neat production delivers small-scale pleasures in the best sense.