Tara Fitzgerald delivered a spellbinding performance as Terrence Rattigan’s complex heroine Lydia on Monday’s press night of In Praise of Love at Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio, worthy of any West End stage, but all the more enthralling due to the intimacy of the venue. Starring opposite the equally charismatic Robert Lindsay as her cantankerous writer-turned-critic husband, Sebastian, this exceptional revival directed by Jonathan Church, explores their 28-year marriage through a series of revelations, all of which confirm the couple’s remarkably symbiotic relationship.
In Praise of Love, originally named After Lydia, is the first part of a Rattigan double-bill play (followed by the much derided Before Dawn), with the original 1973 London production hailed by The Sunday Times critic as “the most piercing exposition of love under great stress that I have ever seen on the stage.” The 1974 Broadway production starring Rex Harrison also achieved success, although Rattigan was less than convinced by Harrison’s utterly charming interpretation of Sebastian who undergoes a gamut of emotions on trying to grapple with his wife’s terminal illness; a role Lindsay fully makes his own in this production, delivering the humour, frustration and tenderness of what is a beautifully written drama.
Set entirely in the Crutwell’s Islington 70s-tastic living room designed by Tim Hatley, when the pale Lydia returns home, boasting encouraging medical reports and four pounds of weight gain, the dependent Sebastian is only too delighted before moving onto more mundane subjects such as the cost of the charwoman coming three times a week, and how his books have gotten into disarray. However did the The Joy of Sex come to be there? It’s Lydia’s. We glean much from this intriguing first half, such as Lydia’s Estonian heritage, along with her harrowing refugee experience during the Second World War; a past which has haunted and shaped her in equal measure. Having met Sebastian in a house of ill repute, only to be gallantly rescued and brought to London, it’s a history that’s oddly romantic.
Sebastian intends to haul up in his study when Lydia announces that their old friend Mark (Julian Wadham), a successful American writer, is visiting from Hong Kong. Wadham is perfectly subtle and charming as the dapper Mark, who, bearing expensive gifts for all, including an extravagant mink stole and chess pieces for Sebastian, once encouraged Lydia to run away with him. Making little attempt to disguise his enduring attachment towards her, it is his respectful resignation of unrequited love, conveyed in his embrace of her and warm greeting of Sebastian, which ultimately makes him a vital confidant of them both.
With Sebastian in his den, Lydia becomes increasingly animated with the help of the vodka bottle; yet it’s a nervous energy that’s explained when she reveals the true state of her illness to Mark, something she wants to protect her needy husband from in order to, selfishly and selflessly, maintain the status quo. Whenever Sebastian interrupts Lydia and Mark, in order to demand that she attend to his light not working or his table not folding, they are embracing, something he appears not to mind. As the drama unravels, so too does Sebastian’s own relationship with Mark, with whom he hints at having had a drunken homosexual encounter years before. It’s an interesting dynamic indeed.
Fitzgerald and Lindsay not only have an utterly convincing chemistry, but deliver an insightful portrait of a husband and wife trying to comprehend a crushing diagnosis; forcing them to examine their marriage and why they have stayed together. Sebastian might have strayed, taken Lydia for granted and been a thoughtless father to their dramatist son Joey (Christopher Bonwell), yet being faced with losing her reignites both his love and his old desire to protect her.
Lindsay really comes into his own in the second half, when Sebastian reveals to Mark, not only that he has schemed to prevent Lydia finding out about the seriousness of her illness, but his reason for doing so; delivering a heart-wrenching account of her early fight for survival from Nazi occupation – a blisteringly moving scene, in which he unburdens himself of his powerlessness to change either what has been or what lies ahead. Written when Rattigan had been diagnosed with terminal leukaemia and was desperate to secure his literary immortality, this compelling In Praise of Love revival reaffirms his place in modern English theatre and the very institution of marriage.
In Praise of Love at the Ustinov Theatre until 3 November 2018. Running time 2 hours 30 including an interval. Production images by Nobby Clark. For more information and tickets please visit the website.