I wonder if there’s a separate faux French term for the feeling when you’re watching a play the story of which is actually the basis for something you’ve seen before?
Kenny Morgan, currently playing at the Arcola Theatre, tells the true story of the titular character and his ill fated relationship with the playwright Terence Rattigan. More interestingly, maybe, it is the real life inspiration for Rattigan’s masterpiece The Deep Blue Sea. Actually inspiration is probably not quite the right word, because DBS (as I shall henceforth be calling it because laziness) tells Morgan’s story to the letter. With one major plot change and the obvious difference in the gender of the central character, there are precious few difference between the two plays. So it’s not that surprising that, despite playwright Mike Poulton’s protestations to the contrary, a good chunk of Kenny Morgan is a scene-for-scene remake of DBS. Whether you think this is a bad thing or not will depend on your view of DBS; as previously noted I love that play and so seeing it in its ‘true life’ form was fascinating.
For all that the plot is near identical, Kenny Morgan does well to draw out some different thematic points. In contrast to the NT’s huge, glamorous DBS the Arcola uses it’s bijou performance space to create something much grimier. This emphasises Kenny’s ‘fall’ from Rattigan’s glamorous toyboy to slumming it in a bedsit in Camden and brings class as an issue into this piece in a way it isn’t in DBS, opening up another philosophical angle since the exploration of gender is removed. The destructive nature of secrecy and shame (and a lack thereof) is also played up as a major theme in this piece. The way that Rattigan’s secrecy (and shame?) around his gay relationships and Alec Lennox’s - Kenny’s new boyfriend - lack of any discretion and certainly any shame around his variously-orientated affairs conspire to destroy Kenny is a really interesting idea that is beautifully explored.
This is a fantastically classy, evocative production too. The set may be, as previously noted, smaller and less ambitious than the NT’s equivalent but it’s no less effective for that. Sound and lighting are cleverly and sparingly used to emphasise the sparseness and coldness of the flat - and the relationship - that Kenny has found himself in. Director Lucy Bailey paces the production consistently well without rushing it, particularly in the big confrontation scenes. And Poulton’s writing is great, creating not only a faithful homage to Rattigan but also a clipped, formal, bleak and tragic world all of its own.
The production also benefits from a first rate cast, from which Paul Keating and Simon Dutton particularly standout as Kenny and Rattigan respectively. Keating creates a painfully relatable, conflicted Kenny desperate for love and acceptance and finding it, as far as he can see, nowhere. Dutton’s Rattigan is a great contrast, achingly charismatic but just hinting at a secret sadness somewhere behind the public image. George Irving also deserves a mention for a pleasingly unreadable Mr Ritter, the mysteriously struck off doctor character who is given a rather more rounded role in this than his DBS equivalent to great effect. (Also he was Mr Meyer in Holby City and for this I will always love him.)
I really enjoyed Kenny Morgan and would go as far as to say it is worth trekking to fucking Dalston for (to the extent anything ever is). A really interesting piece in its own right, moreso if you’ve seen The Deep Blue Sea as well, and a great production. Also try the orange and polenta cake in their cafe. It’s lush.
Kenny Morgan plays at the Arcola Theatre until 15th October.