Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A rather fascinating night at the theatre

The evening didn't start well. We were denied, for the second time in a week, our richly deserved pre-show GBK by a voucher wielding crowd, who'd had the disgraceful temerity to steal our idea and implement it shortly before us. Fortunately ever efficient Wagamama saved the day. Another averted DINKY tragedy; I can hear the very bleeding of your hearts from here.

Through, as so often, luck rather than skill, we had front row tickets at Trafalgar Studios for a performance of The Last Cigarette, a new play adapted by Simon Gray and Hugh Whitemore from the series of memoirs by Gray. I, with my usual ignorance, knew nothing about Gray, and had a mild awareness the play had received mixed reviews. So we didn't really have too many expectations. I just thought it would be nice to see Felicity Kendal. Like so my many male children of the 1970s, my parents' love of The Good Life has ensured a lifelong crush.

I really enjoyed it. Not having read the diaries, I can't rate the play as an adaptation. As a play it mostly works, taking incidents and thoughts from throughout his long life and weaving them into the central story of the slow creep of age and mortality. The main conceit is to have Gray played by three actors, allowing Gray's conversational prose to become actual conversations with himself. This was alternately clunky and brilliant. A rapid pace, clever lighting and bravado performances makes you forget you're effectively watching a 2 hour monologue. Felicity, love her though I may, was probably the weakest link, though each of the other actors had less assured moments. Reading other reviews today, I perhaps enjoyed it more than some because I knew nothing about Gray - several reviewers thought it failed to truly capture a man they were all quite familiar with. I just really enjoyed the language and the clearly lovably irascible iconoclast who penned it. So for me, it served simply as a great introduction to Gray - I'm eager to read the diaries at the very least.

So far so good. What made it extraordinary was the Q&A they had with the cast and co-writer afterwards. I'm a veteran of many post-film Q&As, but this was my first after a theatrical production. We weren't quite sure what to expect. Felicity, alas, was stricken with a cold and didn't attend, but the other two 'Simons' came out about 10 minutes after the show concluded, changed and clutching beers. They were joined by co-writer Hugh Whitemore and Mark Lawson of Front Row fame. Sitting in the literal front row watching this was rather like Radio 4 coming to life before your very eyes.

A fascinating discussion followed, often a paean to Gray and his works but also a fascinating insight into the creation of the play. Gray died shortly before it was completed, ironically not to the lung cancer so feared in the memoirs but to a sudden aneurism. Whitemore completed it, but said it was mostly finishing touches. The audience were given a chance to ask questions, which they did with aplomb until at one point an impromptu answer was given from the crowd. Turns out it came from his daughter Lucy who just happened to be there that night! It lent a further poignancy to proceedings, as everyone knew she'd just seen a play that was about the death of her father. Her less 'arty', more subjective, more matter-of-fact commentary about him provided an interesting, sometimes completely contradictory contrast to that of the panel. It's the sort of thing that would have made a great actual Radio 4 program - I'm astonished they weren't recording it.

Walking out, we walked past Lucy talking with one of the actors, and she had two teenagers in tow, which we presumed were her daughters. Heck of a way to learn more about Granddad.

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