What's Hot in London -- March 1998

Special Features   What's Hot in London -- March 1998
Sheridan Morley reviews recently-opened London shows.

Sheridan Morley reviews recently-opened London shows.

Three or four years ago, the reputation of Kevin Elyot was established almost overnight by his My Night with Reg, a thoughtful and infinitely touching gay play in which most of the events that mattered happened offstage, while onstage we watched their effect on a group of closely interlinked characters.

On the National's Cottesloe stage we now have Elyot's The Day I Stood Still, which also plays around with the conventions of stagecraft, though now more in the tradition of Priestley's Dangerous Corner or Pinter's Betrayal. In that sense this is a time play, and once again we have at its center a man unable to connect with life, but equally unable to allow it to pass him by without making the occasional desperate and usually doomed effort to open the doors of his closet.

In this case he is Horace, wonderfully uneasily played by Adrian Scarborough, and we follow him from the early 1980's through to the present day and then back to the sixties as gay sensibilities change, but he remains chronically closeted in a curiously English prison of guilt and sheer embarrassment at the demands of his heart and body.

The echoes here range from Jules et Jim all the way back to Proust as a long lost gold chain finally releases the secrets of the past. But in its analysis of the recent rites of gay pride, and of how easy it is to cut off entirely from an ever-changing outside world, The Day I Stood Still is a haunting and haunted story of how in the end people always let you down, sometimes by simply dying at the wrong moment. Elyot's play starts ominously like Art, as an intellectual conversation piece about nothing very much, but it rapidly develops into a funny, bitchy, sad play about old friends in a time warp, where the world is seen to belong only to those who know precisely where they wish to go in it.

Recollection is reversed, promises are broken, friends are betrayed, but at the last we have here a touching and sometimes traumatic account of how we got from the Swinging Sixties to the Egocentric Eighties and of those who died on that long march. In a very strong cast, Scarborough is expertly partnered by Catherine Russell, Geoffrey Church and Oliver Milburn in Ian Rickson's agile and adept production, one which augurs very well indeed for his new management of the Royal Court.

Back in the late 1960's, when he was still running the National Theatre company from the Old Vic, Laurence Olivier occasionally (and mainly I suspect to annoy his resident literary manager Kenneth Tynan) asked other critics which plays we most wished to see there; I once suggested Journey's End, R. C. Sherriff's masterpiece about life in the trenches at the end of World War I. The idea was met with a chilly silence and Larry's best basilisk stare; I had somehow forgotten that in 1930 he had himself abandoned the role of Stanhope after one tryout Sunday night in order to play Beau Geste, which he decided had a better chance of success. Unfortunately, Beau Geste disappeared without trace after about a month, while Journey's End survived 600 original performances in the West End, another 600 on Broadway and then went on in 1930 to become the first-ever Anglo-American movie. Since then it has, of course, had at least half a dozen major revivals, and the new one at the King's Head, (now reprieved from financial crisis by public and private support), suggests that the drama is, after 70 years, as powerful as ever. Written ten years after the Armistice and seen now at a time of renewed interest in novels and films about the war to end all wars, Journey's End neither raises nor resolves any of the military or moral questions. The war is taken as an absolute, to be fought because it is there, and Sherriff devotes his drama to the sheer mechanics of it.

In a trench before St. Quentin, during a German offensive in early 1918, a neat cross-section of the officers and gentlemen and other ranks of the British Army are gathered together in a group of more or less immediately recognizable types. There's the courageous officer drowning his neuroses in drink, the reformed coward, the hero-worshipping lad straight from college, the jovial cockney and the pipe-smoking schoolmaster who reads Winnie the Pooh on his way to a certain death.

Lovers of classic British costume television or the movies of Merchant-Ivory will find here the same reassuringly utter Englishness; the play is effectively our side's All Quiet on the Western Front, which it predated by two years to become, in effect, the first documentary of the First War, and in its minute observation of the men in the dugout it is in its own way a small masterpiece. The lunacy of the war, the idiocy of its generals and the ultimate failure of its aims are never for a moment allowed to impinge on the nobility that Sherriff found around him in the trenches and subsequently staged against all apparent commercial odds. Good chaps did the decent thing in those days, even if the decent thing happened to be a bloody and unnecessary death. David Evans Rees directs a strong team led splendidly by Sam West as Stanhope and Kris Marshall as Raleigh.

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