Holy Terror, Duke of York's, London

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The Independent Culture

Simon Gray wrote Holy Terror, he says, when he was drunk - which, if he's referring to all its versions, means he was on one hell of a bender. The play, about a ruthless publisher who has a nervous breakdown, began as Melon in 1988, then, greatly rewritten, it was produced on radio in 1989 and staged in the US in 1991 and 1992. Holy Terror, though, doesn't have the wild gaiety or lacerating rage one might expect from an extended binge: it feels as if it was created during a terrible hangover. An aura of sourness, self-hatred and ineffectuality hangs over it, and, like a real-life ranting stranger, it makes one want to tiptoe away.

Simon Gray wrote Holy Terror, he says, when he was drunk - which, if he's referring to all its versions, means he was on one hell of a bender. The play, about a ruthless publisher who has a nervous breakdown, began as Melon in 1988, then, greatly rewritten, it was produced on radio in 1989 and staged in the US in 1991 and 1992. Holy Terror, though, doesn't have the wild gaiety or lacerating rage one might expect from an extended binge: it feels as if it was created during a terrible hangover. An aura of sourness, self-hatred and ineffectuality hangs over it, and, like a real-life ranting stranger, it makes one want to tiptoe away.

Mark Melon's story is told as an illustrated lecture in which Simon Callow, speaking to the easily shocked members of a Women's Institute, relates his triumphant rise and self-inflicted fall. Callow carries about 90 per cent of the evening on his shoulders, but even those of Joan Collins in her Dynasty period would not be broad enough to support a play whose improbabilities, beginning with the opening premise, increase like fruit flies. We're told that Callow reversed the fortunes of a staid publishing house with a sex book every other firm turned down - a notion as dated as it is implausible and that seems a set-up for jokes that never materialise. The dowdy, middle-aged woman who has written this hot stuff; the dim, deaf editor who hates the young; the wild-haired Scottish author who writes in unintelligible dialect - these briefly seen characters don't even have the substance of stereotypes. Watching Holy Terror is like being trapped by a control freak who has nothing to say.

Though I've always enjoyed watching Callow, an actor who convincingly embodies either bonhomous warmth or Machiavellian glee, this performance is one I was willing myself to forget. Callow grins and jiggles with a geniality so false it is grotesque; inexplicably convinced that his loving wife is having an affair, he repeatedly throws himself to the floor and kicks like a child protesting an early bedtime. When we old theatre hands are chuckling toothlessly round the fire, one of us will win the competition for "most embarrassing memory" by recalling the scene in which Callow gravely kisses his secretary, dressed only in Janet Reger lingerie (on a publishing salary?) in several places, then carries her off for some ostensibly wild lovemaking, moaning: "Poppet! Poppet! Poppet!"

One might think it hardly possible to make this play worse than it is, but the director Laurence Boswell manages it by having a partition slide away, as Callow tells us emphatically that he started at the bottom, to reveal the aforementioned secretary, in a short, tight skirt, bending over to reveal her own. In another scene, he has Callow intimidated by several cardboard cutout figures. This play, one might have thought, had quite enough already.

To 21 August (0870 060 6623)

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