AFTER being at the helm of four Chekhov plays, York Settlement Community Players stalwart Helen Wilson had considered checking out of directing altogether.
“I must say, I never thought I’d direct again,” says the York actress, stage director and York College tutor. “I felt like it was the end of the chapter, and I did think, ‘where would I go from here?’.”
Briefly she pondered the possibility of doing an Arthur Miller play, but after all those Russian plays – Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull – her thoughts turned to the quintessentially English work of Terence Rattigan and in particular Separate Tables.
“This play was something that I’d been considering directing years and years ago for Settlement because it has three really good parts for older women; it’s fairly easy to do set wise, and it’s a damn good play.”
Catching the directing bug once more, Helen is deep into rehearsals for Settlement’s staging of Separate Tables at York Theatre Royal Studio from February 8 to 17.
Technically Separate Tables comprises two interconnected one-act plays, two tales of love and loss, ageing and desperation, both set in the shabby Beauregard Private Hotel, Bournemouth, where events unfold 18 months apart in 1954 and the late-summer of 1955 respectively.
Only the two lead characters change from the first tale to the second, the supporting cast of hotel manager, staff and guests staying the same, as guests, both permanent and transient, sit on separate tables: a formality that underlines the loneliness of these characters in Rattigan’s depiction of class, secrets and repressed emotions.
“Terence Rattigan very much fell out of fashion with the rise of the ‘Angry Young Men’ in the 1950s,” recalls Helen of the new age of playwrights and novelists, John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe and John Wain.
“Famously, Kennth Tynan [the leading theatre critic of his day] turned against Rattigan, saying his plays were rendered irrelevant in the new ‘kitchen sink’ era. But, actually, Separate Tables is a play that was very daring for its time, and there will be a gasp when certain phrases are uttered, where you realise that nothing changes in the world of politics. On top of that, the character John Malcolm is like a forerunner of Jimmy Porter in Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, written only a year later.”
The first tale,Table By The Window, spotlights the troubled relationship of disgraced former Labour Cabinet Minister John Malcolm and his ex-wife, Mrs Shankland. Arriving as a seemingly random guest, she is dining with him, but earlier Malcolm had served time for assaulting her.
The second, Table Number Seven, focuses on the friendship of a repressed spinster and Major Pollock, outwardly generous but bogus behind his façade as an upper-class retired army officer. “It reminds me of Fawlty Towers, with those permanent characters of the two old ladies that always talk at the same time and the Major. It’s a play with lots of drama and a little bit of Victoria Wood thrown in at the beginning!”
Significantly too, Settlement will be using the variation on Rattigan’s drama favoured in American productions from an earlier draft, where Major Pollock is found guilty of approaching young men on the sea front for cigarettes and “other services”.
“You’ll find it as kind of an add-on at the back of the script, and officially that version was never done in Britain, but we’re using it, rather than the script from the premiere where Major Pollock was found to be sexually harassing women at a cinema,” says Helen. “Burt Lancaster and David Niven starred in the 1958 film, with Niven as Major Pollock, and it was very risqué for the time as it went with the homosexual storyline.”
For all Tynan’s judgement, rooted in how Rattigan contrasted with the new breed of working and middle-class writers, Rattigan was anything but a conformist. “He could never experience a safe, cosy relationship in his life; he always veered towards the dangerous,” says Helen.
“He was the son of a diplomat and went to Harrow and Oxford but never voted Tory. He didn’t sit his finals at Oxford, deciding he wanted to be a playwright instead. It was an open secret that he was gay, but it was never spoken of, and while he had lovers, they would never be seen together. He lived on the ground floor of a block of flats, with the lovers staying on the top floor.
“It’s interesting to see how taboos have changed, but there’s still shock value in the play, and we’ve had some really good discussions during rehearsals, with our two younger cast members, where they might not have realised how homosexuality was viewed at that time. I felt rather Victorian trying to explain those things to them.”
The lead roles in each tale were written to be played by the same performers, but Helen has gone with separate actors, casting Chris Meadley, from Tadcaster, as John Malcolm; Molly Kay, from Flamborough, as Mrs Ann Shankland; Settlement and York Shakespeare Project regular Paul French as Major Pollock, and another York stage familiar face, Jess Murray as Miss Sybil Railton Bell.
The roles of the aforementioned three older women go to Marie-Louise Feeley as bohemian racegoer Miss Meacham, Caroline Greenwood, from last summer’s community cast for York Theatre Royal’s Sovereign, as Mrs Railton Bell and Linda Fletcher as Lady Matheson.
Catherine Edge plays Miss Cooper; James Lee follows up his preening Piers Gaveston in York Shakespeare Project’s Edward II with Charles Stratton here; Nicola Strataridaki, soon to appear in one of Next Door But One’s Yorkshire Trios, is Jean Tanner and Matt Simpson takes the role of old school master Mr Fowler. Jodie Fletcher completes the cast as Mabel.
Helen concludes: “People might think it’s cosy to go to a Rattigan play, but a lot of Separate Tables will make audiences feel uncomfortable – and that subject of a disgraced MP is very apt for our times. There’s definitely more in common between Separate Tables and Look Back In Anger than you might first think.”
York Settlement Community Players in Separate Tables, York Theatre Royal Studio, February 8 to 17, 7.45pm except Sunday and Monday, plus 2pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Copyright Of The Press, York