★★★★ | Kenny Morgan

One of Terrence Rattigan’s best known and most moving plays, “The Deep Blue Sea”, has a disturbing and fascinating genesis.

Written in 1952, the play concerns itself with well-to-do Hester who has left her safe but dull marriage for a dashing young airman and is living in desperate poverty, battling depression and rejection. Writing about gay relationships (which were illegal until 1967) would have been taboo and a highly dangerous move so he penned a story that was based on the events that had happened in his life but changed the relationships to heterosexual ones.

Rattigan’s on and off secret lover of almost ten years, the eponymous Kenny Morgan, left him for a bisexual actor. His once promising film career floundered, his finances dwindled and he slipped into depression, killing himself in 1949.

The play opens in a worn round the edges Camden Town boarding house. Kenny (Paul Keating) is lying in front of the gas fire having failed to commit suicide. The dank cellar of the Arcola perfectly houses a set that is utterly convincing and is complete with grimy net curtains, frayed carpets and a lingering taint of too many cigarettes smoked. The dialogue follows suit too and feels genuinely late 1940s. The script is a slow burning one and starts with a camp and amusing skittishness with a cast of inquisitive, prurient and concerned neighbours trying to help Kenny. The pace is pitched perfectly and the notes of tragedy soon emerge as Kenny hurtles towards his horrible fate.

Paul Keating gives a moving performance as the conflicted and disturbed Kenny and is ably supported by a strong cast. Simon Dutton is a suitably suave and rigid Rattigan and Pierro Niel-Mee is Kenny’s rakish yet ultimately sympathetic lover Alec. There’s great comic relief from Marlene Sidaway as his elderly landlady.

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This is essential but sometimes heart breaking viewing and a moving glimpse into a world that seems a lot longer than 67 years ago. Mike Poulton’s skill as a writer is to make it easy for the modern gay man to empathise with the characters and their horrible predicament in a country blighted by anti-Semitism and misunderstanding of mental illness that was a potentially ruinous place for a gay man. However, he presents a more rounded view of the era also where alongside prejudice and bigotry there were pockets of sympathy, warmth and tolerance too. Difficult as Kenny’s life seems and as taut as Rattigan’s predicament was, it’s also comforting to see that there were ways of living under and around the law.

Kenny Morgan plays at the Arcola Theatre until the 18th June

@chrisb715