West End re|Times
h e a t r e
Life Support Review:
The Sunday Observer
Life Support has Alan Bates once again as
the central character
in a Simon Gray play. Photograph by Robbie Jack
by Susannah Clapp
new play begins with a bleep and ends with a silence. This progression
must have pleased the director, Harold Pinter -- allowing him
to move from one of those interrupting noises that he so much
dislikes to one of the silences that he savours. It is a tribute
to a fine production that it should make an audience pay attention
to its details.
Life Support at the Aldwych centres
on -- or over -- a woman in a permanent vegetative state: 'a
bit miserable', I heard one woman sigh in the stalls, with reference
to the play rather than the woman. Its main speaker, subdued
by his inability to help his comatose wife, is flummoxed and
faded: Gray's most characteristically funny notes -- casually
snarling, persistently sardonic -- are present, but intermittent.
This speaker is also a fraud, a travel writer
who makes up his bumbling adventures, and it's not always clear
to what extent his grief is another of his inventions. Gray has
written that 'there is nothing as irritating in a play as an
unnecessary line', and sometimes he overdoes the conciseness.
It is the dubious flamboyance and later regrets of his travel
writer than interest Gray. The vegetative experience seems to
matter less. If there are real-life originals for this inventive
travel writer, they can hardly include Bruce Chatwin -- flamboyant,
but no bumbler.
None of this is very damaging. Gray is one
of the most intelligent dramatists writing for the English stage.
Life Support has plenty of cracking jokes, and its lack
of explanations, its vestigial quality, can be accounted for.
The piece, which runs for an hour and a half without an interval,
is in effect the third part of an informal trilogy. It continues
-- perhaps concludes -- the examination of a character first
put on the stage by Gray 20 years ago in Otherwise Engaged
and developed last year in Simply Disconnected.
These earlier plays provide the history of
a marriage -- a quarrelsome, drink-sodden, enduring partnership
-- which helps to give weight to what happens in Life Support.
They also give biographical ballast to a figure in danger of
seeming too easy a target when defined chiefly as the buffoonish
creator of books with titles such as Bananas in Borneo.
This is a character who provides ample demonstration of the tussle
in Gray's work between comic fluency and facetiousness. The early
plays equip him with a string of gruesome love affairs, a series
of rebarbative social encounters and a career which moves from
book-reviewing to the systematic manufacture of best sellers.
Alan Bates has acted in all three plays --
although not as the same character. In Life Support, he
gives a restrained portrayal of bafflement, precariousness and
bravado. He stations himself rigidly at the foot of his wife's
bed, he moves warily; he staves off sentimentality with malice;
he looks poleaxed. This is a performance which could easily have
been florid, and which isn't. It accommodates some skilfully
orchestrated comic flurries. And it is greatly enhanced by the
prevailing coolness of the production: by Eileen Diss's austere
set with its midnight blue windows: by the beautifully sober
lighting designed by Mick Hughes.
10 August 97