Photo by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ
Paul Keating (Kenny) Pierro Niel-Mee (Alec) in Kenny Morgan at the Arcola Theatre. Photogaph: Idil Sukan

A young man, lying inert beside his gas stove following a botched suicide attempt, is the dismal opening sight to this play by Mike Poulton. The young man is Kenny Morgan, a one time rising star in British cinema and for a period the lover of Terence Rattigan. The past decade has seen his acting success and affair with the celebrated mid-century playwright flourish, then fall apart.

Kenny is conflicted and vulnerable, torn between two romantic recourses: Terence, played by Simon Dutton, who is passionate for Kenny but as a celebrity must keep him hidden from the public eye; and Kenny’s flatmate Alec Lennox (Pierro Niel-Mee), a bisexual fellow actor whose devil-may-care attitude exudes boyish charm and a capacity for heedless cruelty. As Kenny’s career hits the rocks, he faces the choice – to be Terence’s concubine or fall prey to Alec’s caprice. The question is can the people around Kenny (his well-meaning neighbour Dafydd Lloyd or the rationalist ex-doctor Mr Ritter) convince him that life is worth living?

Kenny’s problems are compounded by the times, for in this post-war era suicide and homosexuality were criminal acts. The play does a stellar job of conveying the social mores and emotional reticence of 1940s Britain, warts and all. We are privy to moments of prejudice, such as Alec’s grotesque impersonation of a Jew. Despite this, the play is very funny, and there is black humour, buffoonery and sly digs at the audience throughout. Marlene Sidaway in particular is a delight as the fussy, chastising landlady Mrs Simpson.

Set in Kenny’s shabby Camden flat, strong performances from the cast and a neat, uncomplicated plot make the two hours plus whiz by. The events which unfold supposedly inspired Rattigan’s greatest play, The Deep Blue Sea. However, this is not primarily about the playwright’s tryst with Kenny Morgan – it is a detailed expose on a sensitive, isolated young man’s grounds for killing himself. Mike Poulton’s play displays all the fragility, savagery and capacity for good in human nature, and is a worthy tribute to Kenny’s tragic fate.

Kenny Morgan is at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, E8 3DL until 18 June
arcolatheatre.com

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