Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1
Opened 19 January, 2001

I have never heard brewery scion Valentine Guinness's rock band Darling, but if his first play is anything to go by, I can guess how they sound: derivative of diverse other combos but unable to synthesize their influences into a distinctive noise of their own; superficially sharp but revealed after a moment's consideration to be devoid of originality or insight. It's just a guess, of course, because Helping Harry is exactly this sort of play.

The plot, or at least its various ingredients, are familiar. Five more or less forty-year-old pals gather in the flat of one of their number to await the arrival of mutual friend Harry, an alcoholic no-hoper whom they have determined to buck up and put back on the rails. Of course, Harry never turns up, the quincunx spend the time getting drunker and drunker, playing status games and sharing all kinds of secrets from their mutual public-school and possibly Oxbridge university past and respective presents: sex, drugs, theft, betrayal... in effect, they are jointly and severally Harry themselves, each in need of the same sort of help, perhaps deriving it in the course of the evening, perhaps not.

Guinness's play is in effect a broth of Beckett, Albee and Kevin Elyot, a sort of Who's Afraid Of Waiting For Reg?. It is full of banal or plonking lines such as "It seems to happen as you get older people do tend to drift apart", or my favourite, "Yes, I'm gay. Gay, gay, gay!" It really is dreadfully dull; the only appreciable entertainment comes if you decide to allow yourself to be callous and deride it. What, frankly, are talents the like of Nickolas Grace (directing), Simon Dutton and James Wilby doing here? Answer: pitching it that bit too large for the shoebox space of the Jermyn Street Theatre. (Jay Villiers, and in particular Adrian Lukis, play the space much better.)

Another uneducated guess: I would hazard that Guinness is observing that old creative-writing saw, "Write about what you know," and that what he principally knows is a particular generation and social stratum, and especially the personal fear that as he approaches middle age he finds that "You can grow old without growing up you can get stuck" and achieve nothing. Helping Harry will not materially affect that summation.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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