It's all very elegant and nicely done, but Richard Eyre's staging of snippets of Simon Gray's Smoking Diaries – three volumes of them published before he died last August – barely scratches the surface. And in re-creating the author in triplicate human form – as three Grays – he rather dilutes the rumpled, cantankerous individuality of the original.
It's a design error to start the show with a big blurred picture of Gray puffing on a ciggie, as it immediately sets a false tone of memorial.
Then the brisk matter-of-factness of the writer as embodied by Jasper Britton as the main man; Nicholas Le Prevost as the more querulous version, plus assorted doctors and relatives, and Felicity Kendal as the softer shade of Gray, and the Barbadian nurse who reveals she's a writer, too, when she turns up to remove his penis from a catheter and goes away with a reference to Gray's agent.
All three actors wear a baggy blue shirt hanging over a pair of beige chinos and blue deck shoes. Rob Howell's design also supplies three identical desks with lamps and old typewriters and three piles of scripts. All this replication never has the impact or purpose of Alan Bennett's self-portrait in The Lady in the Van, where two actors play two Bennetts, one embroiled in social hopelessness, the other imprisoned at his desk, both stymied by the old vagrant on the doorstep.
Gray worked in his last days on this adaptation with his friend and fellow playwright Hugh Whitemore, but the collaboration, though shapely, is utterly undramatic. We are told about the grinning man in the corner with a knife – not a theatre critic, I take it, but a vision of the Old Reaper – but the bad news we're waiting to hear, the fumbled diagnosis of a new tumour unrelated to the other tumour and therefore the signal of a spreading disease – doesn't come until the end of the first act.
By then we've had the unwittingly ungallant account of Antonia Fraser's heavy, Plod-like tread, a series of family snapshots including an insight into mother's parenting style of "oaths and blows," memories of cuddles and beatings between Latin and Maths lessons, father's eight-year affair that mother didn't know about, and same-sex hand-holding in the cloisters at Westminster.
Where does all this leave our hero? He grew to manhood and wanted women just like daddy, a somewhat ambiguous ambition, surely. The tone lightens in the second act, with Le Prevost defiantly announcing: "I regret the hundreds of thousands of cigarettes ... I've never smoked." Le Prevost has a wonderfully dry sherry sort of delivery, though he swallowed the important information in the dud Pinter scene about Keith Miller: that the great Australian cricketer was a war hero as well as a champion drinker and womaniser – Gray's and Pinter's kind of chap.
That's something to dislike about Gray: his smug and chummy braggadocio. Jasper Britton deals with this best, skipping lightly through the paragraphs of self-analysis and conveying what his director has cannily defined as the artlessness of the writer's artfulness, "using the present tense as if memories and the act of recording them occurred simultaneously". You can therefore see why Eyre thought the process might work in the theatre. I'm not convinced that he's right.
Felicity Kendal's qualities of bright puckishness don't fit, either. She's all at sea with the dark nastiness of some passages, much happier at moments of tenderness when she slips into playing Gray's long-suffering second wife Victoria, or in the touching sequence about Gray's younger brother, Piers, who drank himself to death with even more reckless abandon than the playwright adopted in charring and scarring his lungs for 50 years.
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