To the public at large popular playwright Terence Rattigan was charming, suave and refined. In his heyday he could be found with cigarette holder in one hand and a glass of fizz in the other, holding court at high society functions and glittering first nights.
But the debonair old Harrovian led two separate lives. The public face produced entertainment about the upper middle classes including The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version and French Without Tears.
However, privately, he wrestled with the fact that he was gay and that he was unable to publicly acknowledge the greatest love of his life, a young actor called Kenny Morgan.
Mike Poulton, who adapted Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies for the RSC, has turned his attention to their relationship in a blistering new drama, Kenny Morgan, which opened at London’s Arcola Theatre last night.
Directed by Lucy Bailey, Kenny Morgan opens with a young man laying down in front of a gas stove intent on killing himself.
It’s the late 1940s and the actor is holed up in a squalid Camden flat. Work has dried up, his new bisexual lover, the actor Alec Ross, has forgotten his birthday, he’s alone, broke and desperately unhappy.
But he’s saved by a neighbour who smells gas and, as it turns out, the very half-hearted attempt was foiled by Morgan failing to put enough money in the meter and not taking sufficient tablets to procure an overdose.
The well-meaning neighbour finds Morgan’s address book as another tenant, a struck off doctor called Mr Ritter, tends to the patient. Discovering the name and phone number of dramatist Terence Rattigan, he calls, and within minutes the celebrated writer arrives at the seedy flat.
If any of this sounds familiar then that’s because Rattigan used the story as the basis of one of his greatest successes – The Deep Blue Sea.
Poulton’s play, based on the story behind the couple’s volatile and uneasy relationship, bristles with theatrical one-liners and black humour but is essentially the poignant story of a tortured young man whose sexuality put him at odds with the law and society.
Rattigan fell in love with Kenny when he cast the then 19-year-old actor in French Without Tears. They became lovers but, out of necessity (homosexuality was outlawed at the time though undisguised among some showbiz types), he kept their affair secret.
The obsessed writer showered Kenny with everything money could buy, lavishing a champagne lifestyle on the aspiring actor, but the one thing the teenager desperately wanted was to be acknowledged – and that was beyond even Terry’s talents.
Eventually he left, moving in with an ex-conquest of Rattigan’s, the self-absorbed and hard-drinking Alec Ross, but the liaison was doomed to failure.
Olivier-nominated actor Paul Keating gives a mesmerising performance as Kenny Morgan. There’s a real vulnerability in his eyes, particularly during one scene, late in the play, when he suffers a complete meltdown.
His landlady, Mrs Simpson (a wonderfully comic turn from Marlene Sidaway), and his Good Samaritan neighbour Dafydd Lloyd (Matthew Bulgo) try to make Kenny step away from the melodrama of his life but the actor seems intent in playing the lead in a theatrical tragedy of his own creation.
Kenny’s openness is in stark contrast to the furtive behaviour of Terry Rattigan. Simon Dutton superbly underplays the playwright. Impeccably dressed, his white hair darkened and slicked back, the TV and stage star looks and sounds the part.
His Rattigan initially comes across as a cold fish, giving little away in his face to suggest that here is nothing more than a clinical encounter between a rich older man and one of his “renters”. But slowly he reveals the truth in their relationship and it’s beautifully played.
I was baffled by George Irving’s bizarre and ever changeable accent as disgraced doctor, Mr Ritter. It was meant to be Austrian Jewish but it wandered around Europe and was impossible to confirm as such.
However, he offered excellent support, alongside Sidaway and Bulgo, as the bit part players in young Kenneth Morgan’s swansong performance.
This powerful story of destructive passions and unrequited love is wonderfully acted. An unmissable drama.
Kenny Morgan plays at the Arcola Theatre until June 18.
Mike Poulton’s new play, Kenny Morgan, is a powerfully told story of destructive passions and unrequited love between playwright Terence Rattigan and the greatest love of his life.