Audra McDonald marvels as Billie Holliday at Wyndham's Theatre.
Following a critically acclaimed run at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, Love in Idleness comes to the West End.
There can be no denying the talent behind this production. Written by Terence Rattigan – a true master of his art form – and directed by the incomparable Trevor Nunn, the play also boasts sterling performances from its two leads: Anthony Head as Sir John Fletcher and Eve Best as Olivia.
There’s fine support too; most notably from Edward Bluemel as Olivia’s son, Michael, but also from Vivenne Rochester and Nicola Sloane in smaller, but equally perfunctory roles.
Creatively, Nunn’s bold strokes give us something of an amalgamation between Rattigan’s political play Less Than Kind and the reworkings he undertook in 1944 to create the original romantic comedy version of Love in Idleness.
Here, the play feels most like the latter – it’s more like a mid-century romcom than anything else; although there’s also some clever symmetry between the political machinations of the plot and our current climate.
Narratively, it deals with a classic dilemma: a mother torn between her lover and her son. We begin with spirited widow Olivia Brown – played with real gusto by the wonderful Best – after she has left her old life behind and moved in with her new lover, Sir John Fletcher (Head).
For all intents and purposes, the couple are living in sin. Sir John is a revered member of Churchill’s war cabinet and despite being separated from his wife, a divorce cannot proceed until after the war.
Things are thrown into further disarray when Olivia’s teenage son returns to London. Having been evacuated to Canada four years earlier, he comes home a young man (not the little boy Olivia remembers), full of ideologies and political viewpoints that neither align with nor complement that of his mother’s new lover or the lifestyle he now finds her living.
The play is full of anguish and absurdity, wit and warmth – and there’s some genuinely side-splitting comedic moments, too. Bluemel is clearly having the time of his life playing the sulky, arrogant teenager to toe-curlingly accurate proportions.
Head, meanwhile, is commanding and forthright as the millionaire businessman who finds his sensibilities skewed by his love for Olivia; he’s particularly excellent when demonstrating a real deviousness as he tries to win her back in the final act.
It’s Best, however, who steals the show. She manages to perfectly capture Olivia’s passion and social snobbery in one fell swoop. There’s a particular highlight when she’s forced to play nice with a distinctly unwelcome house-guest with a beaming, radiant smile that underlines the shallowness of high-society living.
And yet, there are also moments when she’s alone on stage with either her lover or her son, and it’s here that she demonstrates real depth and dimension within the character.
Olivia is very much a woman of two distinct halves – and Best stitches them together with such poise and precision that she creates a brilliantly likeable lead and heroine.
Similarly, by stitching together two different versions of the same play, director Nunn is able to shrewdly demonstrate Rattigan’s classic, iconic capacity to mix genres on the stage.
The end result? Love in Idleness becomes a rollicking night of humour, pathos and drama that’s simply not to be missed!