Robert Tanitch reviews First Episode at Jermyn Street Theatre, London, SW1
FIRST EPISODE is interesting because it is the first play Terence Rattigan wrote when he was barely 22 and it is based on his experiences as an undergraduate up at Oxford University in 1933. Rattigan wrote it with his best friend, Philip Heimann, who to his chagrin, got married and went to South Africa.
The Public Morality Council complained about the play’s blasphemy and immorality. The University didn’t like the publicity it gave to its undergraduates’ life-style: drinking too much, gambling too much on horses, and having too much sex. The Lord Chamberlain, in his role as censor of plays, even before the furore, had already insisted on cuts.
First Episode had its first outing at Q Theatre in Kew and then transferred to the West End for a brief run. It has not been seen since. Tim Littler’s production is something of a collector’s item for anybody interested in Rattigan’s works.
David (Gavin Fowler) and Tony (Philip Labey) are the best of friends. Tony falls in love with a film star who has come to Oxford to play the lead in an Oxford University Dramatic Society production of Antony and Cleopatra. Tony is not pleased and the actress knows why. She accuses Tony of being “a filthy degenerate.” He, in his turn, accuses her of being a degenerate for seducing a 20-year-old, half her age.
The actress is the first of the many unhappy women doomed to love younger men that Rattigan would go on to create in his plays. Despite a fine performance by Caroline Langrishe, it is difficult to believe that she is actually in love with David. It might have been a bit easier to believe had David been played by another member of the cast, Alex Hope, for instance.
The homosexuality, however, is muted because the censor would not have it explicit. Tony doesn’t reciprocate David’s unstated love because he is in denial that they have any sexual feelings for each other. Rattigan did not include First Episode in the collected edition of his plays, disowning it, presumably, because he felt it was too revealing of his own sexual preference.