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Review Round-up: Better Late than Never for Gray

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Eleven years after The Late Middle Classes’ inaugural production, Simon Gray’s 1999 play finally received its West End premiere at the Donmar Warehouse last night (1 June 2010, previews from 27 May).

The original production’s planned transfer from Watford's Palace theatre was thwarted by a short-lived musical, Boyband. Director Harold Pinter called it “an act of betrayal and disgrace to English theatre” and now, albeit too late for either Pinter or Gray to see it, the Donmar and director David Leveaux are trying to right that wrong.

The Late Middle Classes centres on a young boy trapped between two types of oppressive love, which reveals the frustration, secrets and guilt of middle class respectability in 1950s England. Celia (Helen McCrory) is bored to distraction; Charles (Peter Sullivan) is obsessed with his work; and their son is having his first lessons in music and in life.

In conjunction with the premiere on stage, there was a debut of a different kind in the stalls last night - that of Libby Purves as chief theatre critic of The Times.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatonstage.com (three stars) – “David Leveaux’s Donmar revival at least provides an overdue opportunity to test the critical suspicion that this might really be Gray’s lost great play. One always wants to be definite in these situations, but I find myself hovering … The role, first taken by Harriet Walter, is gloriously done here by Helen McCrory … But none of the actors seem entirely at ease in their roles, a curious sensation. Peter Sullivan is a smoothly quizzical older Holly, but he’s one-dimensionally gruff as Charles … We never quite know the truth about these people, but that is how life is, and at least Leveaux’s cast catches that resonating, flawed ambiguity. But the play still meanders too much, and the practical side of the music playing causes more problems than poetry."

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) – “There is a rare subtlety, and ambiguity about the piece, a mixture of comedy combined with something far darker that resists easy explanation or analysis … The play is often wonderfully funny … In David Leveaux’s beautifully judged production, Helen McCrory is superb as Holly’s mother, a brisk, hard-drinking tennis player who is nothing like as confident as she seems, and actually feigns death in order to win declarations of love from her son. Peter Sullivan memorably captures the mixture of indignation and moral shiftiness of her philandering pathologist husband, while Robert Glenister somehow manages to be both creepy and pitiable as the besotted piano teacher. This is Gray at the very top of his game; funny, delicate, and deeply humane.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Justice has finally been done … And it's a measure of the play's generosity that it sees Brownlow not as a sinister paedophile but as a man who seeks to harness his instincts and turn them to creative ends. Leveaux's production is also perfectly pitched. Laurence Belcher, one of three alternating Hollys, has just the right emotional alertness. Helen McCrory, as his mother, blends waspishness with vulnerability. And there is equally good work from Peter Sullivan as her laconically evasive husband, Robert Glenister as the emotionally possessive music-teacher and Eleanor Bron as the Austrian mother who lives in constant fear of the police and her son's exposure … Booted into touch a decade ago, it reminds us of just how good a dramatist Simon Gray was.”
  • Libby Purves in The Times (four stars) – “Near the end of the first act, the studied drawing-room intimacy of David Leveaux’s production abruptly takes off and shoots into another dimension … It has been funny, engaging and sharp: Helen McCrory’s bored housewife Celia is a joy …But when the action switches to the piano teacher’s home it abruptly darkens … It is, for a moment, hard to breathe. And it becomes apparent why Mike Britton’s set features sprigged Fifties wallpaper plastered surreally over every door and window. They had to paper over the cracks, those Fifties people … It says something valuable about a much-mocked generation, and is beautifully served by its cast. Not least — on the opening night — by young Laurence Belcher taking his turn with radiant ease as the innocent, Fair Isle-knit 1950s schoolboy beset by adult grotesques.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) - "This revival, by David Leveaux, suggests both the strengths and weaknesses of Gray’s writing. There’s wit, a perceptive take on bourgeois narcissism, and a poignant as well as undoubtedly semi-autobiographical quality of mournfulness ... The relationships are sumptuously uncomfortable. Helen McCrory is outstanding, conveying the empty raciness of Celia’s speech and the theatricality of her neediness. The character is at once beguiling and grotesque. Less satisfactory is Robert Glenister’s Brownlow, whose contours seem too faint. But Peter Sullivan has some delicious moments as Charles, a man of bone-dry bearing, and Laurence Belcher gives a superbly assured performance as Holly ... While the Donmar is the ideal space for this piece, more sonata than concerto, Gray’s composition seems dense without being nourishing."
  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail“We know the 1950s were slow but need a play about them follow suit? Simon Gray's The Late Middle Classes suffers from the very constipation it alleges of postwar England. Under the direction of David Leveaux every pause is milked, every little piece of scene-filling held up for scrutiny … The one remarkable performance comes from Laurence Belcher as young Holly. It is a large part and he carries it off with composure … Eleanor Bron, as Mr Brownlow's mother, is a serious brake on the flow of the show. Helen McCrory, as the boy's mother, sparks briefly in an argument scene but ... Miss McCrory, who does not yet seem entirely fluent with her lines, relies on a lot of smoking. Great props, cigarettes, but they should not become crutches.”
  • - Tom Williams & Theo Bosanquet


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