Minerva Studio, Chichester
  Opened 17 March, 2009

Fifteen cigarettes are got through in the hour and three-quarters of playing time. That's not as bad as it sounds, since three actors – Jasper Britton, Felicity Kendal and Nicholas le Prevost – all play author Simon Gray, from whose memoirs he and Hugh Whitemore fashioned this adaptation, and they take the cigs in unison. But note I say "got through", not "consumed", still less "smoked": the cigarettes are introduced to lighters, puffed on, stubbed into ashtrays but never actually lit, never mind inhaled. Given that this is the story of Gray's developing lung cancer after fifty-odd years of sixty fags a day, this is at best making a perverse point, at worst downright cowardice. Still, it could have been worse: they could have used Honeyrose herbals.
I have not been a great fan of Gray's work, whether novels, memoirs or plays. There's nothing wrong with them; they have simply never grabbed me. He is a man much admired in his literary/dramatic milieu, but who has never become a compelling name to the wider public. Despite all this, The Last Cigarette gives me a piquant idea of what I have been missing. Gray has a consistently mordant turn of phrase, as when he describes distant "elderly relatives... dead by post" or, in this staging, has Britton and le Prevost riff self-consciously on the cliched phrase "entered my manhood". The evening is structured so that almost every motif introduced in the first half is taken up again in the post-diagnosis Act Two, from the young Gray outswimming his physical strength in the sea to visiting his alcoholic younger brother's grave in Kensal Green cemetery.
The actors in Richard Eyre’s production portray different aspects of Gray's personality. Kendal is more introspective, le Prevost languidly sardonic, Britton (whose recent contributions to some theatrical blogs suggest that he could be no mean diarist himself) the most intense in any mood; at one point, Britton-Gray lunges to throttle le Prevost-Gray, with Kendal-Gray trying to prise them apart. They also take a few other roles: le Prevost excels as a couple of amiably morbid oncologists and Britton is fearsomely spot-on as Harold Pinter. There is probably not much of a wider life for the play, but it succeeds with vigour in communicating the most loved aspects of Gray as a writer, even to sceptics such as myself.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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