Simon Gray brings the baggage of rueful regret to most things, it seems, Even the supposedly welcome sight of a revival of one of his early plays, Otherwise Engaged – itself, of course, about the kind of regrets that permeate through life -- prompts a programme note in which he looks back at those actors now dead from the play’s original 1975 production, or of family connected to them, and says that, “for a playwright, much more than a play is revived, when one of his older plays is revived”.
In this case, however, there may be a stake even higher to re-claim: his dramatic reputation. Across some 25 plays (and the brilliant backstage diaries of the making – and unmaking – of four of the later ones, that have been decidedly better than the plays themselves), we have seen a slow dwindling of his dramatic fire and passion.
But in this richly textured play that deploys a constant stream of laughter to brilliantly mask the pain that courses through it, we get a distillation of the types of characters and preoccupations that he has been fastidiously re-visiting ever since with a kind of nagging insistence.
This is a world of Oxbridge educated publishers and journalists and those resentful of not having gone there; adulterous marriages; and the women that variously seduce and betray them. It’s not a pretty sight, to be sure; but it’s a morbidly fascinating one. And amidst Gray’s uniquely dyspeptic brand of the poison of self-disgust and the bad social and sexual manners that they are revealed through, he has produced a play as poignant as it is funny.
While the original production (and eight other Gray plays) was directed by his long-time friend Harold Pinter, it’s interesting to note that whereas Pinter’s dramatic method in his own plays was to produce multiple shards of meaning from elusiveness, Gray’s own style is invariably to spell everything out, even silently. But while the lead character here duly wears a constant mask of suppressed feelings, Simon Curtis’ otherwise immaculately acted production suffers a hole where the drama should be in Richard E Grant’s performance as the publisher, whose Saturday morning attempt to settle down with a recording of Wagner’s Parsifal are interrupted by a constant stream of visitors.
Though Grant is good at the exterior posturing of bravado that his character hides behind, there isn’t much in the way of internal acting going on; and even the real tear that he sheds at the end seem purely to be on the outside. But there’s excellent support from Peter Wight as his brother, Anthony Head as his best friend Jeff, Amanda Drew as his cuckolding wife Beth and in particular David Bamber as a cuckolded fiancée who drops by with his own disturbing agenda.