During his education at Oxford’s Trinity College in the early 1930s, well-known British dramatist Terence Rattigan, wrote his first completed play with fellow student Philip Heimann. For a first offering, First Episode demonstrates Rattigan’s aptitude for stage writing and signposts the outstanding career that would soon be in his grasp.
Tonally, First Episode exists mostly as a comedy, yet there is a more serious subtext lurking beneath the surface which rears its head in moments of dramatic poignancy. For this liberal and artistic circle, the complex social issues such as aging, purity and homosexuality have major implications within the confining and conservative regime of their university.
Tony (Gavin Fowler), a promising young producer amongst the drama pack at Oxford University Dramatic Society, falls for his leading actress, Margot (Caroline Langrishe), a film star double his age. He declares his passionate love for Margot, a well-practised manoeuvre, igniting a whirlwind romance to which he pledges his commitment. He reveals that he has idolised Margot since his youth, keeping a signed photograph amongst his proudest possessions. These rather silly confessions appear hysterical when juxtaposed with David (Philip Labey) and Tony’s more earnest friendship; a relationship which excels in isolation, away from all the noise of their social lives, where the pair reveal a rather tender bond. Though never explicitly said, the underlying intimacy and tension that ensues, elevates the writing above mere comedy and demonstrates its complexity.
Having also attended Oxford, director Tom Littler is privy to the intricacies of this universe and manages to utilise the knowledge to great effect. He produces a well-rounded production, which is strong in set design, music and pacing, all breathing vitality into the potentially stuffy scenery. The quality of acting was strong, in spite of a few slip-ups and drops in energy during some of the wordier scenes. Adam Buchanan (Bertie) and Molly Hanson (Joan) drove much of the comedy in the production; their loveable renditions of two particularly foolish characters were cringe-inducing.
In some ways, the play has the potential to feel voyeuristic; Rattigan is writing of a world he knew intimately and invites us to bear witness to a great deal; breaking curfews for co-sex mingling, gambling, reliance on liquor, and so forth. However, rather than being too serious in its message, Rattigan prefers to follow in the footsteps of Noël Coward and inject his piece with a sense of fun that is ultimately its selling point.
First Episode is showing at Jermyn Street Theatre until 22 November. For tickets and further information, see the Jermyn Street Theatre website. Photo by Flavia Fraser-Cannon.