Tag Archives: Simon Gray

“Cell Mates” at the Hampstead Theatre

Edward Hall always puts on a classy show. His direction for this first revival of Simon Gray’s 1995 play is, typically, clear and careful. And Hall always gets great performances from a cast: here Geoffrey Streatfield plays the spy George Blake, alongside Emmet Byrne as Sean Bourke, who “sprung” him from prison, and both are superb. Joined by Philip Bird, Cara Horgan and Danny Lee Wynter, who play different characters aiding and abetting the criminals in the UK and then Russia, it’s as fine an ensemble as you could wish for. The production also boasts an impressive set from Michael Pavelka that feels ready and waiting for a West End transfer.

The only problem is that this is a disappointing play that Hall has an unjustified faith in.

While Cell Mates is based on a thrilling real-life story, complete with Blake’s extraordinary break-out from Wormwood Scrubs prison and subsequent life in Russia, the play steers away from a documentary feel or political commentary. Fair enough. But for a piece rammed with spies and the Cold War, it seems perverse to include so little tension. A scene in Blake’s safe house shows Gray’s strength for farce, expertly executed here, while making the KGB officers we meet funny is fine (Wynter is especially good at this), the play isn’t really a comedy either. The focus is Blake and Bourke’s relationship: why the latter helped the former, and why he was subsequently betrayed and imprisoned when visiting Blake in Moscow. Unfortunately, the duo’s friendship isn’t made interesting enough.

Blake and Bourke’s first meeting is gnomic, if intriguing. Scene II starts to reveal some idea of why Bourke might be around – he wants to be a writer and senses “a story to tell and a story to sell”. While this motif is taken up as both men work on books when in exile it does not settle the question of their bond or provide motivation for what they go through together. Talk of a “country of the future” and ideologies is given the briefest lip service. Streatfield and Byrne depict the stress of imprisonment in an accomplished way but the question of their attachment becomes an overwhelming puzzle. Their friendship may well be inexplicable, but Gray doesn’t speculate or explore it in depth and the void created makes the play a pointless struggle.

Until 20 January 2017

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Quartermaine’s Terms” at Wyndham’s Theatre

This revival of Simon Gray’s 1981 work, directed by Richard Eyre, marks a return to the stage by Rowan Atkinson. A story of schoolteachers, set in the early 1960s, it has plenty of laughs but is really quite a serious affair. A testing vehicle for its star attraction, it might leave some searching for more Mr Bean, but Atkinson rises well to the challenge.

As St John Quartermaine, long-standing staff member of the Cull-Loomis School of English for Foreigners, Atkinson plays a man blunted by life. The staff-room misfit and an appalling teacher, he’s a likeable nonentity (and, in Atkinson’s hands, sometimes a little too charming?). The problem for Atkinson is how to stop people laughing at him – the urge is almost impulsive – but Gray’s great creation is a strangely blank character that helps to put distance between the actor and his usual personas.

Most impressively, and appropriately, Atkinson appreciates that Quartermaine is a character around whom the action revolves rather than a star turn. His fellow cast members are, to use Quartermaine’s own catchphrase – “terrific”, and this is a strong ensemble piece. Malcolm Sinclair plays the school’s deputy head, a captain of education, with sardonic, steely beneficence. Felicity Montagu is superb as a study in repression and hysteria. And, as her old flame, Conleth Hill gives the real comic turn of the evening, with every gesture getting giggles, as the two flirt over the croquet sticks and lecture notes.

Increasingly “absent” as time goes on, Atkinson manages Quartermaine’s withdrawal with impressive control and intelligence; perfect for a play so concerned with the passage of time. Eyre’s direction has a thoughtful, elegiac quality, mostly arresting but sometimes robbing the play of zest. Yet as the family dramas that have occurred off-stage (they never involve the lonely Quartermaine) come to our attention, both Eyre and his star provide a melancholic sting that’s perfect for the piece.

Until 13 April 2013

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 30 January 2013 for The London Magazine

“Butley” at the Duchess Theatre

Butley is in trouble. The eponymous anti-hero of Simon Gray’s play has left his wife, is being deserted by his friends, and his career as a university lecturer is full of petty politics and pesky students. Lindsey Posner’s impeccably directed production of this comedy classic is the West End’s funniest play. To use a critical cliché, the English tutor would no doubt condemn – it’s unmissable.

Butley has an egalitarian edge that makes him likeable – he’s nasty to everyone. His dowdy colleague Edna (the wonderful Penny Downie) has her high ideals about collegiate life mocked mercilessly. Anyone who has ever hated work will understand Butley’s boredom; his desperation makes him a mid-life everyman and his wit makes him adorable. He deserves to be punched – but you know he’d come back with a killer line.

Butley’s passion for his “creepy” prodigy and now colleague, Joseph, played with intelligent nuance by Martin Hutson, is flirtatiously ambiguous. It’s unconvincing that someone as brutally honest as Butley would be a repressed homosexual (text excised from performance makes this explicit) but love is at the heart of this couple’s relationship. As moving as it is entertaining, it makes Butley an original examination of male friendship.

Being friends with Butley is worth it. Manic, indolent, fey and mendacious, the title role is performed mercurially by Dominic West – this is a landmark performance for him. Gray’s creation is an Ambrose Bierce of the stage, yet West does him justice with a comic ability that makes the shocks, spills and laughter flow, just like the whisky Butley downs. Performance and play are something to celebrate – I’ll drink to them both.

Until 27 August 2011

www.butleylondon.com

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 13 June 2011 for The London Magazine