What will survive of us is love, Philip Larkin said, and this skilful plundering of the last autobiographical volumes of Simon Gray, by the author himself (before he died in 2008) and his friend Hugh Whitemore, presents a chilling illustration of the fact as the playwright faces death.
Having smoked 60 a day for 50 years, Gray was in no position to complain too much about his fate – though, ironically, he died of an aneurysm, not the lung cancer – but he expresses something profoundly true; that none of us expects to die, until of course we grow older.
And even then death’s an intrusion or, as the dead-of-night writer imagines, a grinning murderer crouched in the corner with his knife, following you about the house. When Gray – or the three Grays (the three grazes?) played in identical blue shirts, faun slacks and deck shoes by Jasper Britton, Felicity Kendal and Nicholas Le Prevost – lights up, the lights go up. And the intruder is an electrician looking for the cheeseboard.
The cheeseboard? Gray, wrapped in a black woolly dressing gown and trying to be grand like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity at the top of the staircase, has misheard “fuse board”. The script is on a constant switchback between intimations of mortality and a supple, quizzical, circuitously expressed comic bumbling, and the actors catch this beautifully.
Richard Eyre’s production, designed by Rob Howell in a minimalist triplicate of desks, lamps and piles of scripts, has tightened up immeasurably since its March opening in Chichester. There’s an attack and an edge about the performance, like a well integrated game of ping pong, and Jon Driscoll’s hazy grey back projections – the author, the Canadian snow, the Cretan sea, the cloisters at Westminster – are much more effective in the cockpit of the Trafalgar larger studio.
Gray never decides if he loved his father, but he remembers him with love, a different thing, and I now appreciate a much fuller picture of his background, his mother who slapped and cuffed (both parents died of smoking too much) and, especially, his younger brother Piers, a hopeless alcoholic, whom he bounced on his head aged two (Piers was two, not Simon) and whose grave in Kensal Rise cemetery becomes as potent and magical a destination for Gray as the Arundel tomb was for Larkin.
- Michael Coveney
NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from March 2009 and this production’s world premiere run at Chichester Festival.
It’s a truism that the British have a taboo about death. It might have been true once but these days, judging by the excessive interest shown in dying celebrities, non-celebrities, journalists and anyone else in the public eye, we seem eager to embrace all the trappings of death.
Simon Gray’s later journals stand out from those memoirs. Refusing to go gently into the good night, they’re hilarious musings on illness, families, friends, literature and the minutiae of everyday life, coupled with a weary disgust about the trappings of modern life.
Now, we have a dramatisation of the diaries and we should no longer be surprised that the musings on mortality and terminal illness could be deemed a ripe subject for an evening’s entertainment – and a very funny evening’s entertainment at that.
The play captures the mood of the diaries perfectly: faced with the realisation that cigarettes have caused not only his death but that of his parents, his anguished cry is that he regrets the hundreds and thousands of cigarettes that he hadn’t smoked.
Gray and Hugh Whitemore’s dramatisation utilises three actors to portray the playwright – Whitemore’s idea, as was the notion that one of them should be a woman. Gray was not initially persuaded that it would be work, but we should be grateful that Whitemore won out as the three actors provide an opportunity to explore the conflicts within Gray as well as playing other members of his family, his friends and the members of the medical profession who deal with his cancer.
The first half has the trio – Jasper Britton, Felicity Kendall and Nicholas Le Prevost – playing Gray more or less interchangeably. For the second half of the play, Britton becomes more prominent, helpless in the hands of the doctors and nurses, with two particularly comic turns from Le Prevost as a cancer specialist “who looks like a chipmunk” and a self-satisfied Welsh surgeon.
Director Richard Eyre ensures that the comic and the poignant are neatly interspersed. But while the diaries are performed with brio, what’s missing is the serendipitous nature of the written journals where musings on his family can subtly and irrevocably lead to some disappointment of modern life. Of course, an evening two hours long isn’t going to capture the range of all four volumes; we’re given a tantalising glimpse of the man, his foibles and his wit.
The Last Cigarette makes for a funny evening, well-performed and slickly done. But when I got home, I reached straight for the books – the play serving only as an hors d’oeuvre for the main meal.
- Maxwell Cooter