REVIEW: Less Than Kind (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, June 1)

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Imagine what might have happened had Hamlet had a happy ending. That is apparently what Terence Rattigan had in mind when writing Less Than Kind – a “lost” wartime play discovered recently and now on tour after a successful short London run a couple of years ago.

Of course, the play’s the thing – and happily Planet Theatre Productions and director Adrian Brown (who found an early draft of the piece, which was never produced but eventually reworked into a different play) ensure that the story behind the production doesn’t overshadow a well-acted and enjoyable evening.

The story is deceptively straightforward: reactionary teenager Michael returns home to Blitz-hit London after four years’ evacuation in Canada to find his widowed mother enjoying an affair with Cabinet Minister and millionaire steel magnate Sir John Fletcher. The love-hate-love relationship between the three characters provides both the comedy and the drama and with its Shakespearian undertones (the title of the play being taken from one of Hamlet’s asides) the question is whether there will be a repeat of Danish tragedy or if things will “assume a pleasing shape.”

William Gaminara is a far more likeable character than Shakespeare’s Claudius, with a world-weariness and short fuse, yet with enough strength of character and charm to evoke sympathy. A Canadian industrialist drafted into the British Government as Minister for Tanks, this Sir John is portrayed as having a ruthless streak that may yet be open enough to post-war social change and a brave new world.

Charlie Hamblett does very well indeed as Michael, dripping with a youthful idealism plucked from the pages of Socialist tracts. He manages to channel the silliness of the petulant schoolboy so that rather than becoming arrogantly irritating we can understand his wish for a new order as well as wanting to protect his mother. There’s good interaction between him, his mother, and her lover, and also with Laura Doddington’s piquant Diana, estranged wife of Sir John.

As Olivia, torn between her son and her lover, Sue Holderness is superb – a clever blend of the scatter-brained, the totally devoted, and the shrewd it is a joy to see her character develop into the means by which all can be made well.

In lesser hands this could easily be a flawed and shabby masterpiece, but here audiences are treated to what is essentially a new Rattigan play which blends farce and wry comedy with social/political comment to engaging effect. While it may not have the impact of his other works, it is interesting enough to hold the attention and garner plaudits nearly 70 years on.

David Guest