Kenny Morgan is based on playwright Terence Rattigan’s real life love affair with the titular actor – a tale of torment that Mike Poulton tells now in imagined fact rather than Rattigan’s fiction, resulting in a script dusted with ironic discussion of the arts and performance. For someone unfamiliar with it’s historical and cultural context, the play is authentic and merited in its own right – but a factual backstory like this only heightens the sense of tragedy and theatrical irony that it executes so powerfully.
The audience at Dalston’s Arcola theatre are intimately unified within a claustrophobic living room set in 1940’s Camden Town for the full duration. The physical space at the Arcola is perfect for a play that centres on themes of shame and deception. The audience are granted insight into both the interior of Kenny’s apartment as well as the corridor outside it, with those entering through the corridor providing a poignant metaphor for the external influences that go on to provoke Kenny’s ultimate and tragic demise. The slant of the ceiling aligns subtly with the many references to Kenny’s ‘unbalanced mind’, drawing a link between setting and character even more tightly. Constant tension between public and private lives – and the ensuing destruction this conflict causes – is intensified by the fact that the audience surrounds the stage, faced with not just the action itself but with each other too.
The first act establishes character dimensions and relationships, and a shocking opening scene is softened by the witty and unapologetic bigotry of Kenny’s landlady, Mrs Simpson (played by Marlene Sidaway). Woven into the fabric of Kenny’s material possessions, both figuratively and literally, are lies and deception that stem primarily from societal attitudes of the time towards same sex relationships, mental health and the law.
As the drama escalates on stage throughout the second act, the cloud of cigarette smoke thickens, and the air of the theatre poignantly becomes noxious and stale. Kenny’s struggle is described by other characters as ‘prolonging agony’, and this also translates to the audience watching it unfold, helped at times by the slow moving plot. But it’s clear that this is no accident – the challenge of being present is central to the overall experience.
Paul Keating (as Kenny) undoubtedly steals the show – with his unwavering vulnerability and powerful sentiment he invests every cell in his body to an agonizing but compelling performance. George Irving (as Mr Ritter) is also a standout – carrying an air of melancholy, kind authority and hilarious one-liners. The other five characters play their parts well as narrative tools, but often err on the side of one-dimensional.
Themes of shame, deception, sexuality, love and limits speak timelessly to humanity, and Kenny Morgan confronts sensitive issues with authenticity and nuance. It subtly and effectively combines tension with humour, forewarning with uncertainty, simplicity with complexity and fact with fiction- resulting in a play that moves and disrupts.
Kenny Morgan premiered at the Arcola Theatre in May 2016. It was revived in September 2016, running from 20 September to 15 October.