What's Hot in London -- Oct. 1997

Special Features   What's Hot in London -- Oct. 1997
Sheridan Morley reviews recent openings in the West End.

Sheridan Morley reviews recent openings in the West End.

So the old firm is back in business again: Messrs. Bates, Gray and Pinter, purveyors of mid-life crises to the gentry, no breakdown too great or small, depression and alcoholism also considered at no extra charge, menopausal male customers preferred, mistresses also acceptable if under stress.

The good news (at the Aldwych) is that Simon Gray is back to the very top of his wonderfully irritable, misogynist form with Life Support, a no-interval 90-minute parable about male incompetence and female endurance under impossible conditions. The curious thing this time about Gray's elegy is that in narrative form it resembles an eery short story by an unholy mix of Roald Dahl and Tennessee Williams. A spectacularly ineffectual travel writer finds himself in some poverty-stricken South American hellhole where his wife is being held at gunpoint by a soldier about to urinate over her.

The trouble is that, for only reason clear at the close, he is, in fact, trying to save her life and is only stopped from doing so by the writer who as usual has got the wrong end of the stick, not to mention the gun. Thus, we now have a wife in a coma (Georgina Hale, supremely touching even in near-total paralysis) and a husband, Gray's usual apology for a man, in more than usual guilt.

In a play that often aches to be a short story, Alan Bates is also at the very top of his form; the man he first played for Gray as Butley, the man always Otherwise Engaged, the teacher who can bear anything except teaching is now the travel writer who can bear anything except traveling and writing. His bedside guilt is not confined to the unfortunate incident with the tropical bee sting; it ranges over mistresses, importunate theatrical brothers (Nickolas Grace, characteristically superb in a deeply underwritten role) and all the dark detritus that the Bates character (now called JG, but it doesn't take long to work out that he's still Butley underneath a thin veil of journalism) has carried about with him like a suitcase for 20 years.

So much of Bates, so much of Gray, now seems wrapped around this man that every time we meet him onstage seems like one more chapter in the ongoing saga of his devastated life. Even if you have never encountered him before, you may as well start from here; all the self-loathing, the desperate jokiness, the childlike rages, the determination to say the worst of himself quickly enough to disarm anyone else about to point it out, all this is vintage Butley, the meltdown man. Sure, there are one or two surprises here, not least an apparently innocuous doctor (Frank McCusker) who turns out also to have a sinister secret, but essentially Life Support takes us to familiar territory as mapped out by Harold Pinter, Gray's near-lifelong stage manager and the director who best understands his curious, hilarious, melancholic, contradictory stage nature.

For all of my generation who have grown up watching Butley as through a mirror that is all too honestly clear, Life Support is, of course, a title that refers to his alter-ego JG rather than the comatose wife in medical need. But, this again, is what Gray has always taught us; we are so sorry you seem to be dying, now let me tell you all about me living. The Gray Man is all he has to live with, to work with, to respond to; it is not the eyes of others that concern him but his own, forever beadily aware that even in the face of an apparently beloved wife's death its only real relevance is to himself. In another sense, it is, of course, JG himself who has reached the state of living death in which we meet his wife: Life Support is a triumph of human observation.

Of all the great postwar Broadway composers, and there are probably barely a dozen, Charles Strouse remain perhaps the most mysterious; talk about a Sondheim score, or a Jerry Herman, or even a John Kander, and most addicts of the genre will hear something familiar starting to play in their head. Talk about a Strouse score, and what comes immediately to mind? Maybe Annie, which is in some ways one of his least distinguished. For this is also the man who composed Applause and Golden Boy and Bye, Bye, Birdie and Dance a Little Closer; and perhaps most impressively of all, the Rags that we have yet to see in this country.

Yet, precisely because each of his scores has been so discrete, so self-contained, so unlike any of his others, it is oddly difficult to come to any real conclusions about his place in the American musical theatre. Now, at the Jermyn Street Theatre, we have a song-by-song anthology of Strouse called A Lot of Living, which, though it could do with some rather more considered scripting and staging, affords an interesting overview of a man who wrote with such varied and various lyricists as Alan J. Lerner, Sammy Cahn, Martin Charnin and Richard Maltby.

In one sense Strouse is a classicist, the only musical composer apart from Leonard Bernstein to have had Aaron Copland as his mentor. In another, he seems to write whatever any lyricist or producer wants him to without a very notable personal style, and the anthology seems oddly inclined to devote as much time to the scores that really didn't quite work as to those that did. But Bonnie Langford drives this evening with real verve and stardom.

-- By Sheridan Morley

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