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February 14, 2005

Man and Boy - Terrence Rattigan

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Terrence Rattigan's Man and Boy
Duchess Theatre, London
1st February - 16th April 2005

Terrence Rattigan's Man and Boy is concerned with the big themes: love and power, and also with the smallest theme: his own relationship with his own reputedly remote and unloving father. This lively revival at the Duchess Theatre has the benefit of a star turn by David Suchet, a reprise in many ways of his brilliant Melmotte in the television adaptation of Trollope's The Way We Live Now. Gregor Antonescu is a financier whose affairs are in big trouble: the world has seen through him. Hounded by the press, he and his all-purpose aide Sven land in on his alienated son, a jazz pianist living in a basement flat in Greenwich Village.

The first Act sets up the emotional themes but its real excitement lies in Antonescu as a financial Houdini trying to save his empire. He must persuade an American boss to go through with a merger that the boss is in the process of repudiating because Antonescu's figures just don't add up. Few things hold our attention better than a confidence trickster in a corner working his way out of a tough spot. Antonescu succeeds by doing some rather dodgy abracadabra with the accounts, and setting up a homosexual liaison between his son and the American boss. But we have already met the son's sweetheart; we know that he is not up for that kind of thing, and he is outraged. "You are nothing!" he cries angrily at his father, and stalks off. In the second act, the empire falls to pieces, and Antonescu does indeed end up as – nothing.

That's the power theme. The love ought to be at the centre of the play, but isn't because none of the other characters get beyond cliché. The son is a morally pure and troubled idealist who cannot stand the fact that his father is a crook. The father has deliberately revealed to the son the dodgy background of his wealth and fame, and five years before, the son had angrily fired a pistol shot vaguely in his father's direction, and gone off to New York. Antonescu's revelations to his son had resulted not from honesty, but from a desperate attempt to alienate the boy's love. Antonescu, it turns out, can stand any emotion except love, and his son features in his understanding as a destructive moral nemesis, an unwonted intrusion of conscience, endangering the whole spirit in which he enjoys the excitement of walking the financial tightrope.

It's his playing close to the edge that gives life to the character. We watch with fascination as Antonescu and Sven set up the appearances that will facilitate their plans. They share the charm of all ruthless amoralists, and the son's attempt to ignite some element of love from his father beats helplessly against Antonescu's settled determination to stay true to his own charming but rather vile self. Here is a kind of egoism so compelling that everything else pales beside it. The dramatic problem is that nothing develops, and the basic structure of the play is the working out of a mechanical fatalism. The son and his sweetheart are largely conventional figures, and Antonescu's dim and vulgar English wife, played with bravura by Helen Grace, merely emphasise the fact that, except in the face of death, and then to a very slight degree, Antonescu can only understand other people as tokens to be manipulated in an endless game of deception.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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