Criterion Theatre, London W1
Opened 31 October, 2005

The last time I saw Richard E Grant on stage, in 1993 in The Importance Of Being Earnest, he was bloody awful.  He overdid it like a sixth-former who was more intent on playing up to his mates in the gallery than on the play.  The good news is that his performance in Simon Gray’s 1975 play is nothing like that. The bad news is that he’s so restrained that it’s well into Act Two before he comes even faintly alive.

I know that “restrained” and “Richard E Grant” are not normally seen in the same sentence, or indeed continent.  But Gray’s protagonist, publisher Simon Hench, is exactly that unexpressive and distant. That’s what the title means.  It’s not that he’s trying to take time off at home to listen to his beloved Wagner, but keeps getting interrupted; it’s that, whether with family, friends or strangers, he never, well, engages.

You would never imagine that Grant, of all people, could make of himself such a blank slate, impassive except for occasional platitudes and pleasantries.  But he does it really exceptionally well. The problem is that this reveals how much Gray’s play relies on a sense of a distinct presence at its centre.  When the dramatic chickens finally start coming home to roost, we feel how much Simon has been keeping bottled up.

Simon Curtis’s production is more than adequate. Anthony Head shakes off his past as Giles in Buffy to play a drunken, irritating Sunday supplement pundit, a precursor to Will Self.  David Bamber is always excellent, and his appearance here is no exception, as he vainly chastises Simon for seducing his unrequited beloved. Peter Wight is top-notch too as Simon’s elder brother.  But the play shows little real power.

Perhaps the play, with its Oxbridge preoccupations and hints of the crises of the era, has dated since 1975.  Perhaps the Criterion Theatre, with its appalling sight lines and meagre sound-proofing (the underground theatre is next door to Piccadilly Circus Tube station), stifles the atmosphere.  Whatever it is, this is a production that you can admire greatly, but that you never really get carried away with.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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