Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables comprises two linked one-act plays set in the same small residential hotel on the south coast of England. The play examines social attitudes towards lifestyles and behaviour deemed morally reprehensible in 1950s Britain. It was first produced at the St. James’s Theatre, London, on 22 September 1954.
The action of both plays takes place in the lounge and dining-room of the Beauregard Private Hotel near Bournemouth. In the first play, Table by the Window, ex-Labour MP John Malcolm, who has spent time in prison for assaulting his wife Anne Shankland, lives a life of virtual anonymity, writing for a left-wing weekly, New Outlook, under the name ‘Cato’. He is in a relationship with Miss Cooper, the manageress of the hotel, where Anne turns up unexpectedly. Their successful reconciliation is disrupted when John discovers that her ‘accidental’ arrival was actually arranged, and he suspects her of trying to ‘enslave’ him again. But Miss Cooper, recognising the strength of feeling on both sides, gives way to Anne, and at the end of the play Anne and John have tentatively agreed to try again.
The second play, Table Number Seven, is set in the same place eighteen months later. The focus is now on Major David Pollock, a long-term, ex-public school resident of the hotel, who has struck up a curious friendship with Sibyl, the infantilised, terrorised, fragile daughter of the tyrannical Mrs Railton-Bell. Despite Pollock’s best efforts to hide the report of it in the local newspaper, Mrs Railton Bell discovers that he has been arrested for molesting women in a cinema, and that his identity is largely confected: he never was a Major, and never went to Wellington School. She calls a residents’ meeting, and, despite many misgivings, they are railroaded into voting for Pollock’s expulsion from the Hotel. Despite Miss Cooper’s urging, Pollock prepares to leave. That evening the residents settle down to dinner and are surprised when Pollock also takes up his usual table. To Mrs Railton-Bell’s horror, the residents, one by one, acknowledge Mr Pollock’s presence, and tacitly accept him back into the hotel. When Sibyl herself, who had been utterly distraught and sickened by the news report, rebels against her mother, Mrs Railton-Bell leaves the dining room, and the diners continue with their meal.
Rattigan originally conceived Major Pollock's offence as that of homosexuality, the practice of which was still a crime in Britain throughout the 1950s. An alternative version of the play, discovered amongst Rattigan's papers in the 1990s, brings the homosexual subtext to the surface: in that version, the Major has been bound over at one in the morning after persistently importuning male persons on the Esplanade. The text presented here is the ‘standard’ version, which first appeared in Rattigan’s Collected Plays and has formed the basis of all subsequent editions; the alternative scenes, which when substituted transform the story of Pollock’s crime, are printed in an appendix; where a passage exists in a variant version, a line appears in the margin alongside that passage. A full account of the two versions is given by Dan Rebellato in his introduction to the Nick Hern Books edition of the play (1999).
The St James’ Theatre premiere was directed by Peter Glenville with a cast including Eric Portman as John Malcolm/Major Pollock, Margaret Leighton as Anne Shankland/Sibyl, Phyllis Neilson-Terry as Mrs Railton-Bell and Beryl Measor as Miss Cooper.
The play proved another major commercial success for Rattigan in the West End and on Broadway, though he was soon to fall out of favour, seen as old-fashioned and outdated after the premiere of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court in May 1956 and the emergence the so-called ‘Angry Young Men’. As Dan Rebellato observes, 'Separate Tables was his last success before perhaps the most sudden and dramatic fall from grace of any playwright this century.'