Mike Poulton’s brand new play Kenny Morgan begins with a bold but derivative opening image: Kenneth ‘Kenny’ Morgan, the titular character around which the conflict of the piece encircles, is seen lying unconscious on the floor of a flat in a boarding house in Camden Town. A failed suicide attempt, drawing parallels to the first scene of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, sees another lodger finding Kenny sprawled on the floor after attempting to gas himself.
Although the play is a slow-burner from the start, the initial scene introduces the various animated and diverse characters that inhabit the boarding house in Camden. The supporting cast is excellent – typical stock characters of British 1940s life that we may easily find in a Rattigan play, for instance. Matthew Bulgo’s kind and heart-warming Mr Lloyd attends to Kenny after he arises from his comatose state. It is a tender and affectionate bestowing of friendship to his fellow neighbour that serves as the first reminder of Kenny’s support that stretches far, far wider than he imagines. Marlene Sidaway’s Mrs Simpson is a similarly warm presence: the mistress of the boarding house acts in a matriarchal role, looking after Kenny in particular. She also delivers some of the best humour of the piece, notably the continued references to “theatrical” men and boys.
After all, Poulton takes pains to recreate the hostile and intolerant attitude of society towards homosexuals at the time, to emphasise the difficulty of life for Kenny. As his complicated and convoluted love life unravels, he is revealed to be stuck firmly between his current partner, a somewhat selfish and childish Alec, played with just the right mixture of arrogance and obliviousness by Piero Niel-Meel; and none other than Terence Rattigan, Kenny’s former lover and by all accounts financier and provider of the hedonistic and luxurious lifestyle he used to enjoy. Kenny has endured a tumultuous love life, and the audience learns it is this dichotomy that caused his earlier botched suicide attempt.
There are tender scenes between Kenny and Rattigan, the latter played with a silky smoothness, quiet brimming confidence and general air of success by Simon Dutton. These give the audience glimpses of the “good times” between the two lovers, as well as the difficulty of sustaining a relationship in a climate in which homosexual relations could result in criminal imprisonment – the legal framework that Rattigan uses as the reason why what he feels privately for Kenny can never be fully rendered publically. Rattigan, too, is revealed to endure a difficult and restrained life, unable to live the way he truly desires. His stubborn inability to merge his private homosexual and public heterosexual spheres of life is the heartbreaking reminder of why this former romance can never be resurrected.
Arguably, it is the second half of the piece that showcases Paul Keating’s admirable skill in the role of Kenny as his breakdown ensues. Launching into tirades and digressions punctuated by tears and violent outbursts, he is completely unable to decide what he wants: a return to his former life in flat B4, several flights of stairs above the personal flat of Rattigan in F2 waiting for a “quick fuck”; or nevertheless waiting, again, but this time for his current lover, an alcoholic and self deprecating actor whose womanising tendencies and unfaithfulness further fuel Kenny’s unhappiness.
These are not the easiest scenes to watch as Kenny’s frustration only echoes the audience’s irritation at the back-and-forth nature of this love triangle. Such are the number of scenes featuring Alec, and then Rattigan, and vice-versa, that they begin to prolong the piece and somewhat diminish from its poignancy in the latter stages. At times it feels as if Kenny’s fate has been confirmed, yet the dramatic finale is stalled.
One of the most moving moments is when the Jewish struck-off doctor Mr Ritter reminds Kenny of the trouble his “people” have suffered too in the most recent war, and how they didn’t have a choice over their lives – in the most horrific of ways. Ironically for him, Higgins finds Kenneth’s determination to end his life selfish in a country “where we have the choice.” This is another highlight of the piece. George Irving’s carefully realised performance as Ritter is a reminder of the balanced frame of mind and composed, rational figure Kenny has seemed to lack so far in his life. Although, tragically, this is ultimately a fact never fully comprehended by Kenny.
A tragic reminder of the trauma of suicide for the individual, as well as the repercussions it may have for all involved, this is a quietly powerful production signalled by the thoughtful performances by all.
Kenny Morgan is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 18 June. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website. Photo: Idil Sukan