Simon Gray’s 1984 play The Common Pursuit has endured nips and tucks over the years to keep it looking fresh but it remains stubbornly resistant to cosmetic fiddling. Every little change weakens it without solving the central practical problem of a group of Cambridge undergraduates viewed in the unforgiving light of what happened to them years later.
If the year of the play is now 1968 (instead of 1964; they should have stayed there), James Dreyfus’s cynical moral scientist Humphry is both over-age and in the wrong decade, while Ben Caplan’s impressionable Martin is puppyish in an ingratiating style that doesn’t suit the role.
The group gathers for the launch of a literary magazine. By the second scene they have dispersed into London publishing and journalism, the anchor figure Stuart (Robert Portal) running a journal of the play’s title that is struggling to survive and reflect ideals of scholarly truthfulness.
In their private lives, the air is thick with deceit and betrayal, with a hammer blow revelation involving Stuart’s girlfriend and later wife Marigold (Mary Stockley) altering the terms of male friendship altogether. Meanwhile, Reece Shearsmith’s consumptively coughing Nick and Nigel Harman’s too smooth and oily, philandering Peter carve their way ruthlessly through the media jungle.
Each of the actors seems to be acting in a different play. The persistent references to the critical writing of the Cambridge professor F R Leavis, the 1970s literary coterie around the poet and editor Iain Hamilton, and even what is bitterly conceived as the smarty-pants intellectualism of the critic Kenneth Tynan and the poet James Fenton, mean little now.
But if they mean nothing to the actors, which they seem not to, the play loses any force as a commentary on the fight for literary values, the corrosion of seriousness in arts journalism and the shameful anti-elitist mantra of the Arts Council. It’s trapped in its own time warp.
You can see why the hindsight view of youthful aspiration should be so poignant, in the way that it was in the emotional pincer movement of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. The device here is stilted without releasing an inner spirit in the play, which ends up as a sort of surreal version of Charley’s Aunt for literati without the skilful farcical control of a better collegiate comedy like Michael Frayn’s Donkeys’ Years.