Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea, which is currently enjoying a successful run at the National Theatre, is starkly autobiographical, inspired by the suicide of actor Kenny Morgan. Morgan was Rattigan’s secret lover for almost ten years before he left Rattigan for Alec Lennox, a younger actor. When Morgan saw his life spiralling out of control – his career in shambles and his relationship with Lennox a rather one-sided affair, he took his own life. Rattigan was unable to speak for 20 minutes when he heard of Kenny Morgan’s death but the tragic event gave him an idea for a new play – maybe his greatest.
As Rattigan could hardly write about an illegal homosexual relationship, he changed Morgan to Hester Collyer, the judge’s wife who has a passionate affair with the indifferent womaniser Freddie. Rattigan’s alias in the play is, of course, the judge who tries to win his wife back. Mike Poulton, known for his excellent adaptations of Schiller, Ibsen, Chekhov and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, might have written the play Terence Rattigan did not dare write. Yet this might be too limiting a view of Poulton’s play as he addresses many issues apart from Kenny Morgan’s unhappy relationship. Poulton describes a homophobic, anti-Semitic Forties Britain and the condemnation and punishment of those who attempt to take their own lives.
The opening of the play is a tribute to The Deep Blue Sea. Kenny Morgan’s lifeless body is lying on the floor in front of a gas fire. One of the neighbours, Mr Lloyd (Matthew Bulgo), is alarmed because he can smell gas and nobody answers the door. He fetches housekeeper Mrs Simpson (Marlene Sidaway) who has a spare key and enters the bedsit. Busybody Mrs Simpson wants to call the police immediately because “suicide must be punished” but the sympathetic Lloyd prevents her and calls on a former doctor, Mr Ritter (George Irving) for help. Mr Lloyd also informs Terence Rattigan, whose name and number he finds in Kenny Morgan’s address book.
The setting of Kenny Morgan is a run-down bedsit in Camden Town where one can hear the tube trains rumbling past. The furniture looks fifth-hand at best and the rug is badly worn (stage design by Robert Innes Hopkins). When Terence Rattigan (Simon Dutton) visits Kenny, he is appalled: “It reeks of failure.” Kenny Morgan (Paul Keating), once a promising young actor, is looking at the ruins of his career. He only gets bit parts in unimpressive films and his partner Alec Lennox (Pierro Niel-Mee) just turned down the offer of a director who expected him to prostitute himself for spear-carrier roles in the theatre. Quite a different world from what a Terence Rattigan is used to. Terence Rattigan offers Kenny a way back to a luxurious life but Kenny declines – he is unwilling to live a lie and be humiliated by his exclusion from Rattigan’s public life. Not even Rattigan’s mother must know about her son’s sexuality and she is a frequent visitor.
Mike Poulton’s play describes a world that was far more forbidding and restrained than ours. Homosexuality and attempted suicide were punishable by law. Lucy Bailey’s production recreates this period in detail and her sensitive direction reveals the unhappiness and desperation hidden behind the facade of good manners and restraint. Paul Keating is excellent as Kenny Morgan, portraying a man who loves so deeply that he cannot imagine a life worth living without his partner. Yet he also shows strength and dignity by refusing to once again becoming Terence Rattigan’s “kept boy”. Simon Dutton gives a touching performance as Rattigan, a man who is forced to live a double-life and suffers greatly. George Irving’s struck-off doctor Ritter is laconic and philosophical, taking the anti-Semitic jibes with stoicism. His disapproval of Morgan’s suicide attempts is – understandably – absolute. Marlene Sidaway is excellent as Kenny’s judgmental landlady Mrs Simpson who disapproves of “that sort” but still tries to be polite and helpful. Matthew Bulgo gives a lovely performance as the kind and sensitive neighbour Dafydd Lloyd, who tries to comfort Kenny. Pierro Neil-Mee convinces in the rather thankless role as the selfish, uncaring narcissist Alec Lennox, who blames the victim for his misdeeds, and Lowenna Melrose makes the most of her smallish role as Norma when she tries to make Alec see the error of his ways.
Reviewed by Carolin Kopplin
Photo: Idil Sukan
Kenny Morgan is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 15th October 2016