By Terence Rattigan
Directed by Gareth Machin
Thursday October 23rd matinee
Miss Cooper, the hotel manager (Carol Starks)
Separate Tables consists of two one-act plays, Table By The Window set in December 1952 and Table Number Seven set in Summer 1954. Both plays take place in the dining room and lounge of the Beauregard Hotel, Bournemouth. The cast are the semi-permanent residents of the hotel. Rattigan’s twist was that the two lead characters in each play differ, and were designed to be played by the same actors.
In the first play, Robert Perkins plays John Malcolm, who is a disgraced ex-junior minister from the Labour government of 1945. He was thrown out and imprisoned for assault on his wife, and is now a left-wing journalist. He’s an ex-docker from Hull. The thing is, the ex-wife, Mrs Shankland (played by Kirsty Besterman) turns up at the hotel, causing great embarrassment as John is now having an affair with the hotel manageress, Miss Cooper (Carol Starks). Mrs Shankland is an ex-model, just turned forty, exquisitely dressed and made up. And a Maneater. The other residents watch and comment.
Robert Perkins as John Malcolm, Kirsty Besterman as his ex-wife
In the second play, Robert Perkins becomes Major Pollock, a “bounder” who is pretending to be a major (he wasn’t) and to have attended Wellington School. A total change of accent and personality. In an even greater switch, Kirsty Besterman becomes Sybil Railton-Bell, the gawky thirty-three year old daughter of the posh Mrs Railton-Bell. Sybil is delicate, repressed, sickened by any mention of sex, and submissive and highly nervous. In spite of having seats in the front row, it took me five minutes to realize it was the same actor. An incredible change.
Rattigan must have designed both plays as star vehicles for the leads to display their virtuosity. The plays debuted in September 1954 with Margaret Leighton and Eric Portman in the lead roles. David Niven starred in the 1958 film with Deborah Kerr, which focussed on the second play. It’s surprising that the programme notes do not delve further into the history of the plays. This production, like a 2006 revival, does not use the script of Table Number Seven which ran for 726 performances, nor the script of the film. In both originals, Major Pollock’s disgrace, reported in the newspaper The West Hampshire Weekly News, was harassing young women in the local cinema. This production uses Terence Rattigan’s first draft of the play, where Major Pollock’s offence was importuning young men by asking them for a light. Tellingly, he was caught with a “full and working petrol lighter” by the police. So we are at Rattigan’s original intent, before it was watered down for the London stage, and the play is all the better for it.
Doreen (Emma Noakes) serves Mr Fowler (Graham Seed)
Mr Fowler, played by Graham Seed, is an important character. He’s a retired public school teacher, constantly booking rooms in the hope that old pupils will visit him. They never do. His reaction to Pollock’s episode is crucial. Mr Fowler has suspected that Pollock is not all he seems, but he is initially in the “condemn” camp, because we think, he has never admitted even to himself, where his interest in “the boys” lies. A subtle performance right down to blushes on cue.
The side seating was not apparent … boxes above the action
The theatre, as in the Old Vic and Trafalgar Studios this year, has been completely refashioned for the play. The stage has been extended over the pit, and banks of seats set on the rear stage. They did the same at Salisbury for Way Upstream and The Bedroom Farce. What is it? Not in the round, because it’s on two sides only, like the Trafalgar Studio. The side seats shown in the picture are a box area, quite high above the stage. Could we call it a “sandwich’ stage or perhaps a “tennis court” stage? We had great seats … front row of the stage seating area. When we booked, the seats behind were taken. We could get the front row I guess because no one wanted to face the main hall. We were on a level with the action, just as if we were sitting at another table. It was an intimate theatrical experience. we felt as if we were there in the lounge.
You expect Rattigan to work on stage, and of course it does. In 1954, he was on the point of being assailed by the new wave of theatre, on the verge of being old hat. Did he know it? Were the Angry Young Men approaching his vision? I wonder. The theme is the old guard, led by the formidable Mrs Railton-Belle, who want to condemn Pollock and have him expelled from the hotel for his mildly grubby deeds. It’s a witch hunt. Arthur Miller got a lot more acclaim for his veiled theatrical version of the Hollywood Trials and the McCarthy era witch hunt in The Crucible. This is less literal, and just as interesting. There’s also an unknowing nod to the kitchen sink era in the first play, where John Malcolm is very much the Northern angry young man who was married to the upper class wife. Was Rattigan prescient? He even called him “John.”
Mrs Railton-Bell (Jane How) is appalled
The programme notes make much of the Bournemouth setting. Ah. My home town. So let’s digress on that. My mother left home in Tredegar South Wales in 1930, aged 15, to go and skivvy in Bournemouth hotels (and send her wages intact back to support her siblings during the depression). She worked in just such a hotel, and was very proud of being taught silver-service to allow her to graduate from skivvy to waitress. I was taught how to eat soup properly, I can tell you. She eventually escaped to the higher status of a shop assistant in ladies fashions. She loved Dad’s Army because Arthur Lowe’s Captain Mainwaring reminded her of all those pompous little bank manager guests in 1930s Bournemouth. The early 1950s weren’t so different. Rattigan even gave the main stroppy little waitress my mum’s name, Doreen. If we’re being picky, Doreen in this production has a Norfolk accent not a Bournemouth one. But my mum would have had a Welsh one. Nearly everyone in Bournemouth came from somewhere else. Except my dad, who was born there.
Rattigan knew his Bournemouth details. Mrs Shankland says she can’t afford the grander Bournemouth hotels like the Royal Bath, The Norfolk or Branksome Towers. The first two are still there. Major Pollock reads about his court appearance in the West Hampshire Weekly News and until 1970, Bournemouth was in Hampshire – it was moved into Dorset in the boundary changes. There’s a glaring error in that Pollock’s importuning was done on “The Esplanade.” In Bournemouth, it’s “The Promenade.” Rattigan might have known that The Norfolk Hotel (which he mentions) was reputed until the early 70s to be the place where gay importuning was done. In Bournemouth, the Promenade runs below the cliffs, so no hotels have level access to it … he doesn’t say they did. So he’s right. And because there’s no passing traffic nor buildings, and it’s very long and secluded, all sorts of things could go on there. The police “stooge” who reports Pollock’s request for a light lives in Studland Road, which I know. It’s half a mile away from where I’m writing, just over the border in Poole. It used to be large old houses, probably guest houses, but they have now mostly been replaced by new blocks of flats. I puzzled over the significance. It’s a most respectable area, but then a light flashed. Studland! He’s a stud! An in-joke that Rattigan’s pals might have enjoyed. Studland is the Dorset beach across the bay at right angles to Bournemouth beaches. It’s a well-known nudist beach, and as most of the nudists are male, there may be a double in-joke.
While not a Rattigan fan, I thought it a very good play indeed, enhanced by the superb “sandwich” staging and a believable cast in every role.
TERENCE RATTIGAN PLAYS ON THIS BLOG:
- All On Her Own by Terence Rattigan, Kenneth Branagh Company 2015
- Flare Path, by Terence Rattigan, 2015 Tour, at Salisbury Playhouse
- Harlequinade by Terence Rattigan, Kenneth Branagh Company 2015
- Ross by Terence Rattigan, Chichester Festival Theatre 2016
- Separate Tables by Terence Rattigan, Salisbury Playhouse
- The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan (FILM VERSION)
- While The Sun Shines by Terence Rattigan, Bath, 2016
- French Without Tears by Terence Rattigan, ETT, Poole Lighthouse