Posts Tagged ‘Simon Gray’

This 1995 Simon Gray play is more famous for one of its stars, Stephen Fry, going AWOL a few days after it opened, bringing about it’s early closure after just over a month. It’s gestation was problematic too – rejected as a TV script, a failed attempt to turn it into a film script, abandoned by its first theatre producer and getting its first outing on the radio. It even changed title several times, ending up as Cell Mates, but they weren’t. I think this might be it’s only London stage revival. It would have been nice to have added ‘long overdue’.

It concerns the real life case, in 1966, of infamous spy and traitor George Blake and his break-out from Wormwood Scrubs and escape to Russia. Blake was assisted by a young Irishman, Sean Bourke, who he met inside, and the play starts at their first meeting in the prison library, where Blake invites him to help (in reality this didn’t happen at their first meeting). We then see them holed up in a bedsit awaiting departure to Russia after Bourke, newly released, has sprung him. Bourke is persuaded to accompany Blake to Moscow and the rest of the play sees them in a KGB flat there, in four scenes over some ten months, during which time they separately record their memoirs, receive regular visits from their handlers and are cared for by a maid who takes a shine to Bourke.

Gray skirts around the issue of the nature of the relationship between the two, and in particular why Bourke is so loyal to Blake, who betrays him as he did his country. As this is fundamental to the story, it derails the play and it ends up a rather dull telling of a fascinating true story; even speculation would be better than nothing. This is compounded by Edward Hall’s tentative, rather conservative production which rarely comes to life, despite some fine performances. Not really worthy of revival, I’m afraid.

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I’ve seen a handful of Simon Gray plays before and though I admire his writing, I’ve never really taken to his plays. It’s hard to like his characters, difficult to identify with their predicaments and they’re all a bit cold and cynical for my taste. ‘So why go and see four in one day’ I hear you ask! Well, I like substantial theatrical feasts, I’m fond of experiments with form and structure and I suffer a bit with marathonitis, though nowhere as much as I used to.

Michael (Mikey) and Jason (Japes) are brothers, the former a successful writer (well, at first) and the latter, crippled in a diving accident in childhood, a teacher and wannabe writer (also at first). They share the family home now their parents have gone. They also share a woman and daughter, though they both didn’t always know that. In 7.5 stage hours, we see various permutations of their lives and relationships. All sorts of things change, including the parents mode of death, the children’s sex and names and the course of their careers.

The first play, Japes, follows the brothers over something like 30 years from when Mikey starts his first novel and his relationship with future wife Anita (Neets) through the birth, childhood and maturity of their daughter Wendy (Wenders) to a tragic conclusion. The second play in sequence, Michael, fills in Wendy’s teenage years and bolts on the same ending as Japes. The third, Japes Too, is essentially the same as Japes with subtle changes and a fundamentally different and happier ending. The fourth, Missing Dates, starts as Japes, expands the core scene of Michael and changes the end of Japes Too. We get a fifth character for one scene of this play – Wendy’s (Wednesday) husband Dominic (Thursday). Keep up!

It’s a fascinating experiment in form and structure, taking the same characters and changing their story and dialogue and making both subtle and dramatic changes. It must be extraordinarily difficult for the actors but director Tamara Harvey has a fine cast led by the brilliant Jamie Ballard and the superb Gethin Anthony.

It’s impossible to like any of these people and they do get on your tits more as the day progresses. You will gather from the bracketed nicknames that they, as did many other things, irritated me. I found Japes a satisfying start and Missing Dates (the funniest) an enjoyable finish, but Michael was a bit pointless and Japes Too much too repetitive. For entertainment, if I could do it all over again, I’d just do Japes or Japes Too + Missing Dates, though the theatrical intellectual in me appreciated the whole experience.

Eggs curate. Curate’s egg.

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Gosh, what a dull and frustrating evening this is.

Simon Gray’s 40-year old play really has only one character; the rest are mere foils. The trouble is, this character has few redeeming features. He’s self-obsessed, misogynistic and contemptuous of all around him. He’s sexist, homophobic and just a little bit racist. Given that he is a university lecturer, written by Gray at the time he was also a university lecturer, some think it’s autobiographical – if that’s true, Gray must really have hated himself.

In one day, Butley learnes that his wife is leaving him for another man, his protege / colleague / flatmate is moving out of both office and home and his alleged ‘poaching’ of a student whilst drunk has caused a rift with another colleague. He smokes, drinks and snipes at everyone and everything. It’s clear why this is all happening to him – who’d want to be married to / live with / work with this man? – and you have no sympathy, just loathing. 2.5 hours in this man’s company seems like a sentence.

Dominic West is an excellent actor and he gives the role his all. The talents of other excellent actors like Paul McGann, Penny Downie and Amanda Drew are wasted on paper thin supporting roles. Peter McKintosh has created a realisitc university office with the wall of books on Butley’s side of the office looking like it will collapse any minute. There’s really nothing wrong with the production except that everyone’s talents are wasted on a terrible play. The only reason I can think of for going to see it is to see how much we’ve moved on in 40 years – but you can do that by watching one episode of Ashes to Ashes.


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This Simon Gray play seems very out of character with the rest of his work, which may be why the nearest it got to London in 1999 was Watford! Though it has some of his trademark humour, it’s an unsettling and not particularly satisfying experience.

I didn’t know whether it was (Donmar Warehouse Theatre programmes really aren’t very good), but it felt autobiographical to me – post-performance research uncovered that the boy’s name is one of Gray’s middle names, Gray was also born on Hayling Island and also went to Westminster School and his father was a pathologist!

It tells the story of an eleven year old boy in the 1950’s whose parents show little genuine interest in him and are then surprised, and in one case outraged (justifiably or not is unclear), when someone else does. The lives of all of the characters are profoundly affected by the events of one weekend.

The first half tries your patience somewhat, but the (shorter) second half is very compelling. Overall, the story failed to satisfy me because of its ambiguity and uneven pace, but you can’t deny that it contains a handful of terrific performances. Eleanor Bron plays an old Austrian woman who spontaneously and seamlessly switches to speaking German when emotional and under pressure. Robert Glenister very successfully transforms from the older to younger piano teacher (and vice versa) and Peter Sullivan effectively doubles as the father and the child in later years. Helen McCrory is wonderful as the self-absorbed wife / mother. Above all there is an extraordinarily assured and subtle performance from Laurence Belcher, one of three young actors sharing the boy’s role.  

Great performance, but a flawed play I’m afraid.

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