Only Fools And Horses star Sue Holderness admits it’s silly to compare Terence Rattigan with Only Fools And Horses writer John Sullivan.
“But John had that same ability that Rattigan had, the ability to make you laugh one moment and then cry the next.”
And that’s what we can expect in Rattigan’s Less Than Kind in which she appears at Brighton Theatre Royal from Monday, May 27-Saturday, June 1.
Sue stresses the play is very much high comedy: “But you will be roaring with laughter and then moments later have a lump in your throat as you sense the raw pain behind it all.”
Steel magnate John Fletcher has risen to the colossal challenge of out-producing Albert Speer and the Nazi war machine in tanks for D-Day. Five weeks later he can leave the government, file for divorce from his unfaithful wife and marry his true love, the widow Olivia Brown (Sue).
But an even greater foe enters the fray. Olivia’s son, who has returned from evacuation, is now 17. He has joined the rising tide of socialists and is outraged at the thought of his mum marrying ‘the enemy’. Can John reach his true love and who will Olivia choose?
For Sue, an important part of the experience is the fact that the play has been directed by
Adrian Brown, who was Rattigan’s lover in the 1950s.
“It’s a great advantage for us. He knows exactly what Rattigan means and exactly what Rattigan wants, and Rattigan specialised in this wonderful high comedy with unspoken pain beneath.”
And in this particular case, it was Brown who rediscovered – for Rattigan’s centenary a couple of years ago – what was effectively a lost Rattigan.
“Rattigan had a conversation with Gertrude Lawrence who said ‘Darling, you must write a play for me!’ He did and he sent it to her, but she didn’t remember the conversation and sent it back to him unread.”
The play was picked up and was eventually staged but was changed so much that it became effectively a different play and went out under a different name, Love In Idleness.
“Less Than Kind got left behind, and then Adrian rediscovered it. I suppose he must have known where it was.”
A factor perhaps in its disappearance was that Rattigan too effectively disappeared, going out of fashion in the late 50s with the arrival of the angry young men playwrights and plays such as Look Back In Anger.
“The Winslow Boy has always been done in reps and things like The Deep Blue Sea has always been there, but really the big Rattigan revival only started with his centenary when people really started rediscovering him. And of course, time had gone by and so these plays now seem like period pieces.”
Sue is delighted now to be wearing the kinds of costumes which she has photographs of her own mother wearing during the war.
“I was born after the war. My father flew through the war. He was an airplane pilot. When I was born, it was very much the aftermath of World War Two. My father flew for BA after the war, and there were references throughout my childhood to World War Two as being something that really wasn’t very far off.
“And I have certainly got wonderful photographs of my mother wearing these kinds of clothes. It was certainly a very flattering period for girls, little waists and so on. And I think in those days the passions were very intense. Nobody ever really knew if they were still going to be around the next day.”