ARTS : Out of the frying pan, into the mire

If all publicity is good publicity, how come Cell Mates, the play memorably abandoned by an anguished Stephen Fry, is closing down on 25 March? David Lister on the anatomy of a disaster

Sandwiched between the Strand Theatre and the Waldorf Hotel is a narrow doorway. Up four extremely steep and narrow flights of stairs are the offices of the West End producer, Duncan Weldon. Through a glass door one can see another leading producer of West End straight plays, Thelma Holt, at work in her office.

The playwright Simon Gray puffed his way up these stairs to see his old friend Weldon towards the end of 1993. Gray had completed a new play, Cell Mates, about the escape to Russia of the spy George Blake. He was proud of it and knew it could be a success. Weldon agreed, especially when he heard Gray's ideas about casting.

As Sean Bourke, the Irishman who sprung Blake from prison, Gray suggested Rik Mayall. For Blake, a donnish, cruel man, capable of sending innocent men to their deaths, he desperately wanted Stephen Fry, again a TV comedian, but a man also known as a wit, author, and Jeeves to Hugh Laurie's Wooster. Fry was cast before Mayall. In fact, they were so keen to have him that they postponed the opening to fit in with his commitments.

They soon knew the move had been worthwhile. In the four weeks that the play was at Guildford and Richmond, it sold out completely. When it transferred to the Albery Theatre in the West End the prospects looked good. £150,000 in advance bookings would not impress Andrew Lloyd Webber, but for a serious play with a cast of five, it was decidedly healthy. The first week played to 70 per cent houses; the expectation was that this would increase to 80 per cent once the reviews were published.

Certainly that was the feeling at the first night party, hosted by Gray, Weldon and Fry at the Groucho Club where the celebrities included Gary Lineker and the actor Simon Ward, who had hotfooted it from his appearance in On Approval. Weldon's only sadness was that his two stars were only contracted for 13 weeks. He would have liked to have extended the run.

The next morning the first of the reviews came out. And here is the chief irony of the whole saga. It has become, thanks to Fry's various faxed mea culpae, part of West End theatre legend that Cell Mates, and particularly Fry, got bad reviews. They didn't. The overnight reviews were largely good, with Fry singled out for praise by the Daily Mail, and by the Daily Express. A day later, the broadsheets were more measured, but still largely complimentary. Fry must be the first actor in theatrical history to have invented bad reviews.

When Weldon visited the cast that Friday night, they were very cheerful. Fry was in good form at a party thrown by Griff Rhys Jones the next day - joking (it seemed) that he longed to return to teaching. But then the Sunday papers came out. The reviews, though slightly less enthusiastic,were by no means stinkers - but they did note that Fry was unmistakably Fry in his portrayal of George Blake. Still, Duncan Weldon was relatively happy. After 30 years in the business, he knew that, though actors like Robert Morley, Wilfred Hyde White and Rex Harrison who "were bigger than the parts they played" and kept their own personalities on stage, might excite critical ambivalence, audiences loved them.

But on Monday, Weldon's first call of the day was from Fry's agent, Lorraine Hamilton. She had received a fax from Fry telling her that he had become depressed, and had gone away.Would she send on various letters he had left in his flat? One was to his mother and father, another to his sister, another to Simon Gray, another to Rik Mayall. In his haste, he had neglected to send one to Weldon, the man who paid his wages. An embarrassed Hamilton said she didn't know what else to say.

That night a startled Mark Anderson, Fry's understudy, arriving at the theatre just 45 minutes before curtain up, and expecting another night playing chess, was told to change in the number 2 dressing room. He would be appearing in a few minutes. Fry had flu. The situation remained the same for the next few days, a trial for all concerned, not least Rik Mayall, who feared for the safety of his friend and who got more tearful backstage as the week went on.

But pragmatic decisions had to be made. Anderson was doing well but the show needed two stars. Gray, who had cancelled his holiday, phoned a stunned Simon Ward, whose run in On Approval had, providentially, come to an end. Ward saw a matine, then learned the part in three days. He took to the stage the following Wednesday.

But while Ward was watching the matine, the story of Fry's disappearance broke. Simon Gray put out a press release saying Fry had gone, and expressing his and the cast's concern. Two days later, Fry sent his famous fax from Bruges, saying the critics had got it right; he was "a silly old fool."

His friends were relieved to know he was safe, but Fry's tone did not amuse Weldon or Gray. What Fry had done was worse than being silly. There was big money involved. Gray, attending the theatre night after night, watched the audiences evaporate. First week houses of 70 per cent fell to 40 per cent in the second week, and 20 per cent in the third and fourth. For Weldon, one theatrical clich was forever demolished. "This proves the nonsense of the saying that all publicity is good publicity. The public perception was that if the play wasn't good enough for Fry, it wasn't good enough for them."

Inside the Albery, feelings towards Fry were changing profoundly. Despite critical acclaim, Rik Mayall dreaded the perception that, without Fry, he had been unable to carry the production. He would say nothing in public, but Gray, whose reputation as a leading playwright would have been cemented by a successful West End run, was less reserved. He issued a press release asking why this "squalid little story" had been emphasised at the expense of excellent performances from Mayall and Ward. It was this phrase, rather than his praise for Mayall and Ward, which excited the press.

In Duncan Weldon's office the phone calls were becoming more serious. The show was insured for a star actor becoming ill, but as Weldon remarked at the time, "I insure against illness, but I don't insure against disappearing actors." His insurers told him he must produce a medical certificate for Fry. Lorraine Hamilton somehow got this message to Fry, allowing her to tell the press later of his return to England for a day to see his doctor, who had confirmed he was suffering from a depressive illness.

As it turned out it wasn't a great help. Weldon's insurers told him they wanted Fry to be examined by a doctor appointed either by them or the producers. But when Weldon's lawyers passed the message on to Fry's solicitors, the request was turned down.

By the end of last week the play had lost £30,000 - not including the profits that might have been made if Fry had remained. These they calculated as a further £300,000. Peter Wilkins, Weldon's number two, was dispatched on Friday evening to give the cast two weeks notice. The play would close on 25 March. As Weldon says, "The only actor who would have been surprised would have been a blind actor who couldn't see the empty seats." Gray had had enough. He rearranged his holiday and flew off to Bermuda.

Two questions remain after what Weldon, who still thinks highly of Fry, describes as the most bizarre episode in his 30 years experience. Will Weldon sue Fry (and if he does, it will be for some £600,000) - and can Fry work in the West End again?

The first question is still debatable, but it is already clear that Fry is unlikely to work in the West End again. If he is prone to depressive illness then he is a big insurance risk. If he wasn't ill, he might be viewed as a risk of another kind. For if he wasn't ill, his actions were those of the stereotypic luvvie. And in the cash-conscious, hard-bitten world of West End theatre, that is the one sin that cannot be forgiven.

DOING TIME - A `CELL MATES' DIARY

Thursday 16 February

First night of Cell Mates. Stephen Fry hosts a party in the Groucho Club. Fellow actor Simon Ward attends

Sunday 19 February Stephen Fry flees the country under the impression he has received rotten reviews

Monday 20 February

Mark Anderson, understudy, takes over Fry's part.

Wednesday 22 February

Simon Gray makes a public admission that Fry has disappeared. "It is obvious that he is a man in emotional turmoil," Gray says.

Friday 24 February

Fry issues a public fax to the world: "I'm a silly old fool and I don't deserve this attention."

Wednesday 1 March

Simon Ward takes over in Fry's role as the double- agent George Blake.

Thursday 2 March

Gray issues a fax to the press, condemning Fry's "squalid little story" and the "chaos and distress" he has left behind.

Friday 10 March

The producer Duncan Weldon decides to close the play after £300,000 losses.

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