Reviewed for the Alan Bates Archive by Karen Rappaport.
EARLY ON in Simon Gray's new play, Life Support, travel writer Jeff Golding (Alan Bates) recalls a day three years previous, "that last afternoon at Simon's," after which Golding and his wife, Gwen, went on the wagon. Addressing Gwen, who now lies in a coma in a London hospital after being stung by a bee, Jeff says this about Simon (who does not otherwise appear in the play):
"Still, he did come down to see you. I mean, weren't you amazed--I was--coming through the door, eh, smiling vaguely. He actually got your name right most of the time (not that he used it much, of course; he scarcely spoke). But he looked benevolent, eh? Quite loving. And not at all embarrassed, not like the others. . . trying to avert their eyes from both of us, not knowing what to say to either of us. I hope I made it clear that there's no point, absolutely no point, in their coming back. . . ."Though Simon would be all right. I mean, after a while we'd hardly notice he was there, would we? And he was the only one who never asked (typical of him, I suppose) about what happened."
These lines, tantalizing to Simon Gray fans, hint at Life
Support's lineage; we recognize references to characters
from earlier Gray plays Otherwise Engaged and Simply
Disconnected. Is this a continuation of the Simon Hench saga?
Life Support focuses on JG, who was a secondary character in the earlier plays (you can add details of JG's mercurial relationship with Gwen, including the source of JG's allusions to past drink-throwing and drunk driving, by reading them). But author Simon Gray, (left) director Harold Pinter, (right) and Alan Bates have here put onstage a play that poses life's big questions so gently, and with such wit, that it stands on its own, connected to the earlier works, but not really a sequel. This trio know a thing or two about guilt, sadness, love, isolation. They also have the wisdom to know that we confront life's unexpected challenges alone. JG's own answer, in the end, is so quietly expressed that one has to think, and think again, to know that it is there at all, to realize that courage does not necessarily look heroic. Those familiar with JG from the earlier works are particularly aware of the distance he has travelled by the time Life Support's final chess game begins.
A chief glory of Life Support is its star: Alan Bates in a Simon Gray play is an actor in his element. If Gray has a special idiom (the jacket blurbs on JG's latest book are "relishable puffs") Bates is a native speaker. Radiating anxiety and then determination as the play begins, JG's efforts to revive Gwen lead to contretemps with his brother Jack; his literary agent and sometime lover, Julia; Dr Pat O'Brien; and with Gwen herself. Bates is onstage for the entire play, often speaking for Gwen as well as himself. It's a thrilling performance, complemented by the strength of a well-chosen supporting cast.
Frank McCusker, as Pat, with his soft brogue, provides the
perfect foil to Bates' JG. Garrulous and humane, he tries to
stand in as family and friend. Nickolas Grace's Jack moves from
manipulator to someone very like the brother JG needs, in one
of the play's emotional peaks. Carole Nimmons, who has played
opposite Bates in Gray's 1987 play, Melon) presents a
warm and appealing woman who might offer JG support. Georgina
Hale (whose association with Gray, Pinter and Bates reaches back
to the 1974 film of Butley) is a touching Gwen, performing,
even singing, while lying flat on her back. It's a relief to
see her, tiny in her nightie and socks, smiling at the curtain.
Life Support is performed without an interval; short blackouts between scenes, with a recorded narrative, allow only minimal costume changes. The set consists of a hospital bed and some medical equipment standing between two tall windows; opposite are a low table and chairs. There's a sink in one corner. Simon Gray has noted elsewhere his preference for sets and stage direction that arise out of the needs of the play (he abhores plays where the characters are always in motion, eating or fussing at something irrelevant and distracting).
Although Life Support confronts serious issues, it is filled with humor. There is a mystery surrounding Gwen's accident, which is gradually revealed; there's more to Pat than meets the eye, and we learn about the progress of other patients and their families via Pat's anecdotes.
Life Support takes place over a significant period of time, and is, in part, about endurance. We would feel this more if we could see time--even seasons--passing outside the windows (which presently show nothing at all); see small changes in the room, the sort of accumulation that occurs as time passes; see JG in a seasonal change of clothing (he spends the entire play--months--in the same increasingly rumpled linen trousers he wore on the flight from Guadeloupe). But these are quibbles.
Jeff Golding goes it alone from beginning to end, increasingly filled with guilt and grief, his love not enough to awaken his wife. The doctors eventually cease to hope for a miracle, and urge JG to say goodbye to Gwen. As Pat says to him, "The past is memories; let them live in you. You don't need to wait around here for your grief, JG. It will come at you when it will...where and when you least want it."
True enough. But JG's response is the real heart of the matter, and, as with so much that Simon Gray writes, what seems simple at first resonates for days. Though we leave the theatre, it's not easy to walk away from Life Support. [KR, June 1997]
Note to lovers of tempests in teapots: The Sunday
Times critic, John Peter, wrote a review of Life Support
which suggested that he nodded off and missed some key turns
of plot. I wrote a letter of clarification to him, and as an
afterthought, sent a copy to Simon Gray. Mr Peter never responded,
but a month later I got a warm note from Gray, as well as a signed
copy of his novella, Breaking Hearts. The correspondence
can be found along with the John Peter