Critics, myself included, had little time for John Mortimer's Naked Justice earlier this year at Leeds: it seemed efficient in its amusement, but ultimately hollow and already antique in style. One feels rather callous saying the same about Mortimer's Hock And Soda Water, now at the Minerva in Chichester; it is evidently a much more personal piece, and indeed it is hard to shake the sensation that it has been written as a kind of swansong. But it has to be faced that there is really not much here either.
From the opening seconds, when Richard Johnson's wryly rueful Harry encounters "a boy" playing at Beau Geste on a windswept east coast beach, it is obvious despite some initial coy phrasing that this is a man looking back over his own life, advising his younger self and commenting upon matters to us. It is a life, as Harry sees it, thoroughly wasted in its provincial circumscription, all squandered opportunities. Growing up the son of a similarly thwarted doubting clergyman, young Henry drifts from his wartime military service into local journalism, his grotesquely misplaced dreams of becoming Fred Astaire replaced by just as insubstantial visions of making his mark on Fleet Street. Offered both intellectual and sexual excitement by the provocative Mavis Whitney, Henry instead allows himself to drift into a more or less arranged marriage of safety, adequacy and boredom, even acquiring a parochial pride in his attainment as chairman of the local newspaper group. Mavis, meanwhile, goes off to live the very life Henry had wished for himself, and a final wistful reunion, decades on from their single night of passion in his father's graveyard, convinces him that the seemingly endless stream of figures down the years who went off in search of adventure were the ones who got it right.
It is all very... again comes that word "efficient": the blend of sardonicism and affection which the aged Harry gives to his memories, the minor-key melancholy of the reminiscences (the two acts are played in by "September In The Rain" and "September Song" respectively), the predictability with which he advises his younger self to take one path and watches him take another (played first by over-enthusiastic young Sam Harding, then by Alan Cox, admirably suppressing his natural exuberance), even the too-persistent and occasionally confusing use of "we" to refer to the dual Henry onstage ("Our father's churchyard", and so on) and the motif of Byron's verse as an emblem for dreams of glorious escape... it all does its job with quiet assiduity and the sort of floridly bathetic turn of phrase which is a Mortimer trademark. Christopher Morahan's production likewise gets the job done. But what kind of job is it? In the limited goals of entertainment and insight which it sets itself, the play and its vision are quite as small and unprepossessing as Henry's life. Yet sadder than anything in the piece is the inescapable impression that this is in its modest way heartfelt, that in effect Mortimer cannot offer himself any grander vehicle for his own emotional retrospection.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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