With The Deep Blue Sea currently playing at the National Theatre, it seems like an appropriate time for Mike Poulton’s new play Kenny Morgan to premiere at the Arcola Theatre. Directed by Lucy Bailey, the play is based on the relationship between the actor Kenneth Morgan and the playwright Terence Rattigan: it has been suggested that the relationship was the inspiration for Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, with the protagonist changed to a woman because of the social mores of the mid-twentieth century.
The play is set in the winter of 1949 in a boarding house in Camden Town. A neighbour, alerted by the smell of gas, discovers a young man lying unconscious, apparently having tried to commit suicide. The neighbour finds the young man’s address book, and phones the first name he finds there – that of Terence Rattigan.
This powerful play centres around the strong performance of Paul Keating in the title role. His Kenny is deeply flawed, not always likeable, but still sympathetic. Simon Dutton is also very good as Rattigan, the ageing playwright who cares for Kenny but who is frightened that their relationship might become public. There is good work, too, from Pierro Niel-Mee as Kenny’s current lover Alex Lennox: their relationship, which seems to be almost love-hate at times, is difficult to watch. The characters of the kind-hearted Mr Lloyd, practical Mr Ritter and disapproving landlady Mrs Simpson are effectively drawn: Mr Ritter in particular is a fascinating character and the others’ reaction to his background argues that people facing prejudice are not immune from being prejudiced themselves.
I haven’t yet seen The Deep Blue Sea, but this production of Kenny Morgan stands alone as a profound exploration of the difficulties faced by gay men in the 1940s as well as the pain of unrequited love.