One of the aims of the tiny Finborough Theatre in Earls Court is the rediscovery of ‘genuinely neglected’ works from the 19th and 20th centuries. Terence Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme hasn’t been staged since 1958, when it was critically panned and derided as melodramatic. In this first revival, directed by Michael Oakley and with – according to this interview – a heavily edited script, what emerges is a gripping and emotional story of class, ambition and love; about the difference between give and take and whether we need to be loved, or love to be needed.
Variation on a Theme is based on Dumas’s La Dame aux Camélias and is set in a villa on the French Riviera, not far from Cannes. The inhabitants live a sun-drenched, booze-soaked existence, flitting from one party to the next, via the casino. Designer Fotini Dimou and Sound Designer Max Pappenheim have worked wonders in the Finborough’s small space: the terrace set feels warm and full of light and much more spacious than it actually is. The sound of crashing waves and birdsong beyond help convey this sense of space and grandeur, while the noise of cicadas imparts the idea of the sultry, often stifling heat in that part of the world – an appropriate metaphor for the kind of society that Rose Fish has spent most of her life desperately trying to become part of.
Rachael Stirling is superb as Rose, a consumptive social climber about to embark on her fourth marriage to an incredibly wealthy German businessman. But when she meets a young ballet dancer and believes herself to be falling in love for the first time, the true extent of her emotional distress is gradually revealed. Of course, it helps that Stirling looks sensational (and her own naturally husky voice is wonderfully indicative of Rose’s louche lifestyle) but she also perfectly captures Rose’s strength and intelligence – this is a woman whose sheer determination has seen her rise from humble beginnings as a poor Birmingham typist – as well as her physical and emotional vulnerability. Rattigan has created a wonderful female role in Rose, and Stirling is utterly compelling; it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off her, something only magnified in the intimate space at the Finborough. Stirling’s Rose is both imperious and commanding, used to getting her own way, and yet she is also excellent at conveying those moments of doubt, where Rose wavers, where her voice breaks or pauses, or where her hands tremble.
In Variation on a Theme, Rattigan is exploring suffocation and repression, both societal and emotional. Everyone is concerned with appearances, with money and social standing, and with hiding their true feelings (‘feelings can’t be helped, but the expression of them can’, says Ron’s dance teacher in a particularly telling line). But the ruthless and ambitious often pay a high price: as Rose’s daughter Fiona points out, ‘What does luxury mean these days? There’s no point selling your soul to the devil; you get nothing in return.’ What emerges is a powerful portrayal of the price we play for conforming and denying how we really feel; it’s been so long since Rose was happy that she believes just being needed by Ron is the best thing that’s ever happened to her, which is heartbreaking. Yet, not only has Rose been oppressed by her own constant desire to keep up, she’s also slowly suffocating from consumption and simultaneously drowning in her relationship with Ron. The unaccustomed feelings of passion and desire threaten to overwhelm her and (*spoiler alert*) in the end she decides to let them, knowing that if she runs away with Ron she will die from the disease.
Rachael Stirling is the big draw here, but she is well supported by the rest of the cast, particularly by David Shelley as Sam – his scene with Stirling is one of the evening’s highlights as he brutally breaks down any illusions she might have been clinging onto about Ron. Unfortunately, two of the other female parts (those of Rose’s daughter Fiona and friend Mona) feel rather thin and underdeveloped, and there’s an overlong gambling scene between Kurt and Ron, but these are only minor criticisms; the judicious editing of the script ensures that this version avoids any hint of melodrama. What emerges from the common, simple plot is actually something with a great deal of depth and heart that raises many interesting questions, not just about love and relationships, but also about ambition, class and society and what the consequences might be if we let those things affect how we choose to lead our lives.