AH, ENGLAND in the early Fifties - bliss in that dawn to be alive it was not. Take Celia Smithers, stuck on a peevish little island off Portsmouth. One is, of course, desperate to get to London - or is one, given that one takes one's post-war female frustrations everywhere? And dependent, for the move, on one's 12-year-old son getting a scholarship to Westminster. Meanwhile, there is tennis and gin and more gin and dealing with one's trying inferiors and being a boon to one's husband and trying to forget the less constricted world the war had opened up to women.
You might think it would be hard to avoid patronising such a character, particularly when half the stage is occupied by the home of a couple of refugee Austrians, a mother and her middle-aged son, sitting targets for unthinking, British snobbery. But one of the strengths of The Late Middle Classes - Simon Gray's deeply satisfying, funny-sad and perceptive new play - is its refusal to set up any crude oppositions. The two homes, culturally so different and positioned cheek-by-jowl in Harold Pinter's pitch-perfect production, are in fact subtly distorted images of each other.
We begin to see this through the experience of the young English son, Holliday (enchantingly played by Sam Bedi), a gifted pubescent boy who goes to the foreigners' house for piano lessons with the quizzical amateur composer and pianist, Thomas (excellent Nicholas Woodeson).
Though the play's identity has the unmistakable stamp of Simon Gray and its stage craft is reminiscent of Rattigan at his finest, the author that this play kept reminding me of is Dickens. It has his acute understanding of the pressures adults put on children, of the emotional blackmail, and the way we manoeuvre the young into betraying themselves by betraying others.
In the one house, Harriet Walter's superb Celia plays silly games of pretending to be dead, to extort reassurances of love from her son: in the other, the childish games are tinged with platonic paedophilia. But just as with the clashes of culture, Gray declines to make an easy moral division. The eventual ugly show-down between the angry father (James Fleet) and the frightened refugees is not Britain's finest hour, but the insecurity that fuels his wrath is beautifully developed from the uncertainties Gray has dramatised in the English couple's marriage.
There will be no justice if this play does not transfer, but since the West End is not known for justice, lovers of emotionally literate theatre should head now for Watford.
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