A darkened theatre in the round is illuminated by the opening of window shutters. Light pours in and the show begins.
Terence Rattigan is celebrated for his comedies from as early as the 1930’s, his characters on occasion played by acclaimed actors, the likes of Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe, and his work earning him a knighthood. First performed in 1943, While the Sun Shines now taking centre stage in 2021 doesn’t disappoint, and as a farce it works well. There are plenty of witty lines, instances of dramatic irony, and moments of chaos. Director Paul Miller ensures there are lots of laughs to keep the audience engaged throughout the performance.
The entire play is set in the Piccadilly chambers of an English Earl, Bobby, who is engaged to be married to Lady Elisabeth (Rebecca Collingwood). She also wins the affections of burly American Lieutenant Mulvaney (Conor Glean) and soppy Frenchman Lieutenant Colbert (Jordan Mifsud), and a story of complicated romances unfolds. The men argue among themselves, resorting to playing craps to decide who will win Lady Elisabeth’s hand, as gender stereotypes are played out. Lady Elisabeth befits her role as a naive woman, who cries at sad songs and becomes intoxicated after one scotch, whilst her male counterparts (amusingly described as the United Nations) discuss her prospects.
Strong female roles would have been uncommon in 1943. The character of Mabel Crum (Sophie Khan Levy) breaks this mould as she is well known among the male characters as an unapologetically self-proclaimed “trollope”. She states, “I do it for the men, not the money” and really owns her position as a woman with independent ideas, veering away from marriage as an institution that might stifle her freedom. Khan Levy’s bold performance enables Mabel to be seen as a beguiling, strong female in her own right, swerving any snobbish ideas around her promiscuity. Instead we view her as heroic as she declines the Earl’s pragmatic proposals and stands firm on her beliefs.
Throughout the play, the Earl’s “man” Horton the butler (John Hudson) flits in and out of scenes, does what he is told, and serves those in charge. Hudson is totally compelling, playing a perfect English gent. From every detailed quirk and mannerism to his English butler’s attire, his character is entirely believable and highly entertaining.
The drawing room setting for the play is simple but intimate, like the warmth of your favourite sitcom coming to life. It felt cosy, with the audience a part of it all, and it is a well-suited piece for theatre in the round.
The play offers a critique on status, as everyone is infatuated with money, titles, and material things. It is set against the backdrop of a very real war taking place, and the characters’ somewhat flippant priorities are contrasted against this fact. However, these less relevant issues also serve to add lightness in the catharsis that this comedy provides; a form of escapism and liberation from the gruelling realities in society then and now.
This is a solid performance, brimming with energy, offering great casting and dynamics between the characters, but it felt a little too lengthy at two hours and twenty-five minutes including interval. By the end I was getting fidgety and a little numb confined to my stiff chair!
As the shutters closed towards the end of the performance, I reflected on light entering on their opening at the start, which provided an apt beginning for a play set during the Second World War; a time accustomed to dark days of uncertainty but eased by the lightness in humour of While the Sun Shines. It’s an uplifting message to all – to enjoy the little moments of comedy in life that can always be found if you look hard enough.
Written by Terence Rattigan
Directed by Paul Miller
Produced by Stuart Burgess
While The Sun Shines plays at The Orange Tree Theatre until 8 January 2022. Further information and booking via the below link.