West End re|Times
e a t r e
Life Support Review
Gray's gripping bedside manner
- By Charles Spencer
- Life Support at the Aldwych
THIS is Simon Gray's first play in the West End since Stephen
Fry's famous vanishing act from Cell Mates. This time
I hope Gray gets the long run he richly deserves. Life Support
is a moving, often balefully funny drama which reveals that this
undervalued writer has lost none of his distinctive gift for
compassion and bile.
Life Support concerns a woman lying
in a vegetative state while her husband keeps an anguished vigil
by her hospital bed. It is the kind of nightmare most of us have
contemplated in the dark watches of the night, and many might
be reluctant to pay good money to see it enacted on stage.
Yet the play grips throughout and it is remarkable
how much humour, and how many dramatic surprises, Gray manages
to find in what is essentially a static, relentlessly bleak situation.
Perversely, this is the one major ground
for criticism. There are times when you feel that Gray is sugaring
the pill with jokes and clever dramatic twists, so you never
quite forget that you are watching an artfully constructed play.
There can, however, be no complaints about
Alan Bates's magnificent performance as the grieving husband,
one of the finest of his career. It is perhaps impertinent to
speculate about how much of himself an actor brings to a part,
but Bates has suffered personal loss in recent years, and there
isn't a moment here when the emotion rings false.
Bates plays Jeff Golding, a travel writer
who makes up most of his bumbling adventures from the comfort
of his hotel bedroom. But on his last trip his wife really was
stung by a bee and went into a coma.
Bates beautifully captures a vain and superficial
man who is forced to confront life's random cruelty. He ranges
from initial bewilderment through anger and guilt, to sudden
moments in which grief is combined with aching tenderness. There
is a powerful impression of deep emotion barely contained. When
Bates suddenly surges with anger, or succumbs to a devastating
sense of loss, the dramatic effect is explosive.
There is an admirable lack of sentimentality
about Gray's play. The marriage is never idealised--the writer
and his comatose wife were often quarrelling alcoholics--and
there are scenes when black comedy verges on the downright tasteless.
Nickolas Grace, for instance, plays Bates's
brother as a devious sponger who offers sympathy and hard-luck
stories as a ruse to solicit financial support. And there is
an extraordinary, painful scene in which Bates and his literary
agent (excellent Carole Nimmons) discuss their past affair in
an attempt to awake the wife from her coma.
There's outstanding support from Frank McCusker
as a garrulous doctor who isn't what he seems, and selfless work
from Georgina Hale as the wife, almost motionless throughout
and with just a few lines of dialogue which are actually taking
place inside Bates's head.
Harold Pinter's production is spare, scrupulous
and continually involving. It's a rich and affecting evening.
Tickets: 0171 416 6003. Telegraph Box Office: 0541 557000.
Copyright 1997 Telegraph Group Limited.
9 August 1997