Although his first big hit was the comedy French Without Tears, Rattigan is best known today for serious dramas depicting the upper-middle class struggling with barely suppressed emotional conflicts. We certainly don’t think of him as a farceur. Nevertheless, the decidedly farcical While The Sun Shines was his biggest hit in its day and ran for well over a thousand performances at the Globe. There are many who dismiss Rattigan as irredeemably old-fashioned, but a number of his plays have been very successfully revived recently, including Flare Path. Will this production of While The Sun Shines serve to further rehabilitate him? Possibly not, for it pretends to be little more than escapist froth, designed to cheer the spirits of war-weary audiences in 1943. However, it is cleverly plotted froth and often very funny, and given the sweltering weather in Bath yesterday its title alone raised a smile.
The action takes place over twenty-four hours in the posh London residence of a wealthy, amiable and cheerfully dim aristocrat, Bobby Harpenden. He is on leave in order to marry the equally amiable and cheerfully dim Elizabeth, the pretty daughter of a gambling-addicted duke. Bobby is in the Navy and Elizabeth is a WAAF, their joint dimness indicated by the fact that neither of them has attained officer status despite their privileged backgrounds. This very English setting of upper-class dottiness is disrupted by the presence of handsome American Lieutenant Mulvaney, rescued by Bobby after getting plastered in a nightclub. In a nod to Anglo-American relations, Bobby and his guest get on like a house on fire, so much so that Bobby agrees to set him up with Mabel, an attractive warm-hearted floozy that he’s known for years. Complications ensue when Mulvaney mistakes Elizabeth for Mabel, and the innocent and wholly inexperienced Elizabeth finds herself on the receiving end of a transatlantic charm offensive. Further complications are created by the arrival of another lieutenant, this time a French one that has fallen madly in love with Elizabeth after travelling down from Scotland with her on the overnight train.
Given that he has presented us with a pair of upper-class twits, an ‘over-sexed and over here’ American, an earnestly passionate Frenchman and a tart with a heart, it can be seen that Rattigan has not shied away from using very familiar stereotypes. Nevertheless, there are some genuine surprises in this play, and not just in its farcical twists and turns. There are frequent references to the coming of a new social order, and it is clear that Rattigan foresaw that Attlee would triumph in a post-war election. Bobby and Elizabeth know that their breed is ‘doomed’, and Mulvaney raises a question or two about the morality of having wealth without having worked for it. We learn that Bobby’s manservant, Horton, has a brother who is a high-ranking naval officer, while Bobby himself is a mere rating; there’s a ‘new class prejudice’. However, it is clear that Rattigan did not anticipate a sexual revolution; Elizabeth takes no offence at being threatened with being put over a man’s knee and spanked, and she is clearly perfectly happy to be valued for her prettiness, her innocence and not much else.
Director Christopher Luscombe has wisely staged a neatly trimmed two-act version of the original three act play. He has also reinstated some mildly risqué material that was disapproved of by the wartime censors, and there are a couple of moments of cheeky stage business that would certainly have startled a 1940s audience. Other than that, he has remained entirely true to the original, and designer Robert Jones has created an entirely authentic, impressively opulent set, complete with plush furniture and family portraits on the wall.
In a show that is performed well by all seven of the cast, the star of the evening is undoubtedly Michael Cochrane as Elizabeth’s splenetic father, with cheeks so red he seems in danger of self-combustion. Cochrane is eminently well-suited to play irascible old duffer roles like this, bringing to it oodles of energy, superb comic timing and a great deal of heart. As the romantic French Lieutenant, Nicholas Bishop manages a convincing accent without descending into Inspector Clousseau territory, and he has some of the best lines, which he delivers adroitly. As the romantic leads Rob Heaps and Alexandra Dowling make an attractive couple, and it is no fault of theirs that the play’s happy denouement is a little less than convincing. Though most of the action is pacey and inventive, by the final scene things have begun to flag a little as Rattigan ties up the loose ends.
While The Sun Shines is very enjoyable summer holiday fare. Yes, it’s a period piece, but a good one. Thoroughly enjoyable. ★★★★☆ Mike Whitton 20th July 2016
Photo – Tristram Kenton