Simon Gray published two hilarious journals about his misadventures in London and LA with The Common Pursuit. But it's now 20 years since we've had a chance to look at the play itself.
The passage of time is bound to affect your experience of a drama that traces the erosion through time of innocence and idealism. Even though Fiona Laird's revival is far from subtle, and, on occasion, gratingly coarse, I winced with recognition and felt twinges of heartache more often now than I did in 1988.
The recent past is a foreign country, too, and the play seems to deal with a world as disconnected from our own as that of Pope and Swift. It opens with a joke about F R Leavis, for goodness sake. Witty and defiantly literary, it ticks none of the boxes in the campaign against élitism. I only wish I could be as enthusiastic about the production.
We first meet the characters in 1968, when they are Cambridge undergraduates about to launch a literary magazine. It aspires to the high intellectual standards exemplified by the Leavis book from which the play derives its title. Each subsequent scene leaps forward a few years up to 1986, until at the end the play circles back to their original meeting, viewed now with poignant hindsight. Idealism fades; friendships are betrayed; sterility casts its blight. The dialogue has an erudite, bitchy bounce, and there are entertaining running gags, but there's a deep, underlying melancholy.
There are two fine performances. James Dreyfus is authoritative as the waspish gay philosopher who abandons his masterwork on Wagner because "everything I've written about him reduces him to my own sort of size". His tragedy is that he is so brilliant, he sees through everything, including himself. Ben Caplin movingly communicates the troubled decency of Martin, who lives vicariously through his friends.
Given that it's a male-dominated milieu, Mary Stockley does well enough by Marigold, the editor's wife. But I never believed in Nigel Harman, as the once-promising historian who declines into a philandering author of coffee-table books, nor in Reece Shearsmith as the hack with the hacking smoker's cough. Crudely portrayed, these characters seem to hail from the world of sitcom rather than from Cambridge.
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