Terence Rattigan’s first play, written as an Oxford undergraduate in the 1930s, provoked scandal over its frank treatment of sex and homosexuality. It’s never been revived – until a sell-out production in London this month which comes to Oxford next week. Director Tom Littler celebrates an extraordinary homecoming.

Rattigan comes homeBy Tom Littler (Lady Margaret Hall, 2003)

Terence Rattigan is one of the best known dramatists of the 20th century. His plays, ranging from the miniature tragedy of The Browning Version to the claustrophobia of The Deep Blue Sea, and from the social invective of The Winslow Boy to the charming comedy of French Without Tears, capture a particularly English spirit. He writes about restraint and repression; about people who suffer under the surface, but continue to smile; about ordinary middle-class households where extraordinary passions burn.

Particularly during the 1940s and early 50s, Rattigan dominated the West End. But in the late 1950s his reputation collapsed. At the Royal Court Theatre, the ‘angry young men’, led by John Osborne, were carving out a new space for drama in popular culture. Rattigan made the mistake not only of picking a fight with this new wave, but also of patronising his own audience, whom he characterised as ‘Aunt Edna’, a middle-brow Surrey lady who came up to London to see his plays after some shopping. For his last few decades, Rattigan was English theatre’s token has-been, symbolising everything wrong with ‘the well-made play’.

Rattigan comes home

Rattigan’s exile did not last forever. A 1994 revival of The Deep Blue Sea starring Penelope Wilton brought Rattigan’s work to a new generation. With the centenary of his birth in 2011, interest in Rattigan’s career exploded. There were revivals of many of the major Rattigan plays, and some of the rarer ones (including Flare Path, Cause Célèbre and After the Dance) and their author was acclaimed once more for his dialogue, subtlety and piercing honesty.

His first play, First Episode, was written when he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Oxford, with his friend Philip Heimann. They wrote the play in 1933 and, using a legacy from Rattigan’s grandmother, got the play staged at a fringe theatre in Kew. It was a scandalous success, and greatly upset the Public Morality Council. It transferred to the West End, and then to Broadway, in 1934. In Oxford, it was considered so outrageous that it banned, and the editor of the Cherwell was prohibited from printing a review of its London production. Rattigan never looked back, but the play itself has never been revived since anywhere in the world.

First Episode is probably the most autobiographical play Rattigan wrote. In his later work he disguised his own inner life, but in this debut work he is unafraid to put himself and his own life on the stage. He writes with remarkable frankness about gambling, drinking, friendship, and, most of all, sex – both heterosexual and homosexual.

In the 1930s it was common practice for Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS) productions to feature male undergraduates acting opposite professional actresses. It was thought that the mingling of male and female undergraduates on stage would be disastrous. This was still the age when ‘undergraduettes’ were banned from tea shops at lunch-time, for fear of leading the male students astray. While Rattigan was a student, the Presidency of the OUDS was taken by George Devine, who would later set up the Royal Court Theatre. Devine invited the young John Gielgud to direct Romeo and Juliet, and Gielgud brought with him Peggy Ashcroft to play Juliet, and Edith Evans to play the Nurse. Rumour had it that Ashcroft and Devine (playing Mercutio) enjoyed an affair, watched avidly from the wings by Rattigan, who was playing – notably badly – a serving-boy. Rattigan thought that here were the germs of a play.

The second inspiration was more personal. Rattigan’s best friend and co-author, Philip Heimann, was having an affair with a glamorous young woman called Va-Va Basilewitch, when Va-Va’s older, married, and yet more glamorous sister, Irina, turned up. Heimann swiftly transferred his attentions to Irina. Rattigan, attempting to cling onto their close friendship, realised that he had become one point of a love triangle.

Rattigan comes homeThe Oxford of First Episode, then, is that of Brideshead Revisited, but not seen through any nostalgic haze: it’s a world of urgent energy, ambitions, mistakes, and disastrous romances. Rattigan appears in First Episode in the bisexual character of David, a pacifist (Rattigan himself attended the famous ‘King and Country’ debate at the Oxford Union). Heimann appears as Tony, President of the OUDS and a go-getting womaniser, who finds that he is out of his depth when he begins an affair with the older and more sophisticated film star Margot Gresham. Around this central triangle, their roommates, their scout, and a young visiting actress enjoy their own ‘first episodes’ of love, illicit parties, and hot jazz.

I read English at Lady Margaret Hall (2003) and directed many student productions. Like Rattigan’s characters, I had some involvement with the OUDS, and my own brush with the proctors, but the early 2000s were perhaps tamer than the early 1930s. These days, alongside a freelance theatre directing career, I run a theatre company, Primavera, which specialises in reviving rarely seen plays: our past work includes plays by Graham Greene and AW Pinero. In London, featuring a splendid cast including Caroline Langrishe as Margot, First Episode has been excellently reviewed, and completely sold out with queues for returns every night. Rattigan has had another hit.

But Oxford is where First Episode is set, and where Rattigan started. The generous support of LMH alumnus Richard Buxton, a supporter of both Primavera and of LMH, made a short Oxford run possible. So this November Rattigan’s play will finally be performed in the city of its birth. The Public Morality Council can’t interfere, the proctors cannot ban it, and Cherwell is welcome to review. Eighty years late, Terence Rattigan’s debut play has come home.

First Episode is at the Simpkins Lee Theatre, Lady Margaret Hall, on 28th (7.30pm) and 29th (2pm / 7pm) November. The 7pm performance on 29th November is a gala evening including a complimentary programme, drinks and canapes.

Images (from top): Philip Labey as David; with Gavin Fowler as Tony; Molly Hanson as Joan and Adam Buchanan as Bertie. © Flavia Fraser-Cannon, reproduced here with kind permission.