One of the most succinct lines in twentieth-century drama occurs in Under Milk Wood, when Willy Nilly Postman (having already steamed open the villagers' mail) informs a recipient, "It's another paternity summons, Mr Waldo." Problems of paternity on all sides bedevil Simon Hench, the protagonist of Simon Gray's Otherwise Engaged who returns 25 years on in a sequel which finds him no less divorced from the world, and the world no less insistent on making its presence felt. Hench's married housekeeper is carrying a baby which may be his, his married brother is under investigation for molesting one of his 13-year-old public-school pupils, and he is held at gunpoint by the disturbed offspring of a casual liaison a quarter of a century earlier, when all he wants to do is spend a quiet Sunday listening to a tape of his late wife in the church choir.
In 1992 John Osborne's appalling Déjàvu revisited a middle-aged Jimmy Porter who was as crudely bilious as ever. Simply Disconnected likewise over-eggs the pudding at times, with an only sporadically and mildly amusing running gag about Hench's atrocious memory for names and a cut-off phone standing as a needlessly blatant symbol of his condition. However, Alan Bates (who created the role of Hench in Otherwise Engaged) gives a beautifully controlled performance. Each set of footsteps on the gravel path, each new or repeated arrival through the French windows of his Cotswold drawing-room is greeted with the same air of polite, dispassionate distraction.
Only twice during the play does his voice rise above the almost monotonous calm of a man whose attention is consistently either in the distant ether or deep in himself (effectively the same thing), yet Bates – under the direction of Richard Wilson – never remotely begins to bore. Benedick Bates as the howling, stuttering, substance-abusing, revolver-waving Julian Wood is given an object lesson in "less is more" acting by his father. Only when external circumstances begin to return to an empty normality – give or take Gawn Grainger's dishevelled, drunken travel writer in one corner of the room – does the strain show on Hench. Apart from a brief and immediately stifled howl of anguish, Bates does not seem to modulate his performance at all, yet it now poignantly conveys the painful effort and loss which underlie his disconnection.
In the midst of Charles Kay's stuffed-shirt bluster as brother Stephen, John Michie's casual neanderthalism as "chauffeur" Greg and Rosemary Martin's bibulous nymphomania as Gwendoline, Bates remains as the still but now clearly suffering centre. Simply Disconnected is not an especially distinguished play, focusing as it does on characters whose tribulations are circumscribed both socially by their age and class and dramatically by the work's nature as a sequel, but Wilson's production is brought to life by Bates's remarkable central performance.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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