The Holy Terror, Duke of York's, London

Audience left to pick up bill for Gray's bender
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The Independent Culture

Simon Gray wrote The 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.

Simon Gray wrote The 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, was rewritten, to be produced on radio in 1989 and staged in the US in 1991 and 1992. (When the playwright directed the last of those productions, he was, he says, drunk as well.) The Holy Terror, though, doesn't sound like the product of an extended binge: It feels as if it was created during a particularly terrible hangover. An aura of sourness, self-hatred, and ineffectuality hangs over it, and there's a desire to tiptoe away.

So many lines sound self-referential that the evening feels like a series of dares directed toward the twitchy reviewer. Will a critic, one can almost hear Gray wondering, quote the line in which Melon is described as so boring he even bores himself? Or will he repeat Melon's admission that his jokes are not very good, but "I help people to detect them by laughing at them myself"?

Perhaps one will say how relieved he was when Simon Callow, as Melon, assured the audience (the play takes the form of a lecture interspersed with acted-out scenes) that he was near the end of his talk. Whatever the reason such providence-tempting remarks are there, they intensify the uncomfortable nature of this perplexingly pointless play.

As a supposed hot-shot whose dull and whimsical books somehow turn into blazing best-sellers and shake up a staid old company (the business aspect of the play feels dated as well as unconvincing), Callow has about 90 per cent of the play on his shoulders, but not even Joan Collins in her Dynasty period could bear this burden.

Full of transparently false geniality, he bursts out every now and then into moments of cruelty that sound as if he is raging at his own ineffectuality. The evening is full of scenes that neither illuminate the character nor amuse the audience but serve very well to embarrass everyone.

The worst, I think, is the one in which Callow, with elaborate formality, kisses his secretary, who has stripped to her Janet Reger lingerie (on a publishing salary?), on several parts of her body, and then carries her off for some ostensibly wild lovemaking, moaning, "Poppet! Poppet! Poppet!"

Paranoid delusions that his loving wife is having an affair require Callow to throw himself to the floor several times and kick like a child protesting an early bedtime.

Melon is given shock therapy by a batty shrink who says: "One day we may know more about what we did to cure you," and returns to the company to find his place usurped by a protege. None of these feeble gestures in the way of satire or plot create either, and director Laurence Boswell adds to the general embarrassment by having Callow at one point confronted by an array of cardboard cutout figures. This play had quite enough already.