Simon Blow’s new drama is based on the true story of his relationship with his great-uncle, a former socialite who was considered “the brightest” of the “bright young people” in the 1920s – Stephen Tennant. Tennant had an affair with Siegfried Sassoon over several years and counted Cecil Beaton, The Sitwells, Jean Cocteau, and many other big names of his time among his friends. He was the inspiration for various characters in Evelyn Waugh’s novels, including Sebastian Flyte in “Brideshead Revisited”. In his final years, Tennant became a recluse residing in his manor. And this is where Blow’s play begins.
Short of money and of relatives, Joshua (Jojo Macari) decides to seek out his great-uncle Napier (Bernard O’Sullivan), an invalid living in a secluded mansion. Surprisingly, the old man takes to the boy and Joshua becomes his confidant and carer, indulging his uncle’s every whim, be it listening to a recording of the musical “Oklahoma” for the umpteenth time or helping him release lizards into the garden. Cousin Patrick (John Rayment), who watches over Uncle Napier, especially his money, observes the growing closeness between Napier and Joshua with suspicion.
Uncle Napier does not reside alone. The ghosts of his young self (Nick Finegan) and of his mother (Elizabeth George) are haunting the mansion with neither of them showing any sympathy for the old man. His mother refuses to accept him as her “golden boy” at first, Napier’s younger self detests him because he let himself go and turn into an overweight, old man. The narcissistic Napier, however, is convinced that he has kept his youth and beauty, displaying his chubby legs to Joshua – “the legs of a dancer”.
Joshua’s frequent visits to his uncle harm his relationship with his new builder boyfriend Damien (Denholm Spurr) because it is obvious that Joshua thinks Damien too coarse to meet his uncle. Joshua has a posh background and a public school education although he missed out on living in a mansion himself as he was cheated out of his inheritance – a wrong that has haunted him all his young life – and which he intends to correct with the help of his uncle. He is dreaming of offering Damien the life he has been missing so badly, once his uncle has passed on after making him the sole heir.
There is not much of a story in this play, the focus is clearly on Uncle Napier, who is lounging in his bed, whilst answering his correspondence or working on his unfinished novel Lascar. When Joshua comes to visit – never often enough -, he reminisces about his glorious past when he was the golden boy who knew everybody who was anybody, indulging in name-dropping: Jean, Cecil, Edith, Virginia etc. His dream is to be kissed by a tattooed sailor once again, and he has drawn a multitude of sailors, ships, and cargo men to illustrate his poems as he remembered them from the port of Marseille. Joshua eventually organises an exhibition of his uncle’s work to help him receive the praise he so craves.
Although the play has potential, it is too long and drags in the second half. Joshua comes across as a rather whiny character who suffers greatly because he cannot live the privileged life he thinks he was destined to lead. Uncle Napier could be somewhat more charismatic and flashy considering that he used to rub shoulders with some of the greatest writers and artists of his time. John Rayment gave excellent support as both cousin Patrick, lending him an ominous quality, and the painter Marcus Templeton, who longs to spend time with his very own bright young things – Joshua and Damien.
The design by Rosie Mayhew consists of a bench in front of a screen decorated with drawings in Tennant’s style. When folded back the location changes to Uncle Napier’s boudoir, the sailors replaced by flowers and windows with a view of his garden.
Reviewed by: Carolin Kopplin
The Past Is A Tattooed Sailor is playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 27th August 2016