West End re|Times
h e a t r e
Life Support Review
When a phoney faces reality Alan Bates with
Georgina Hale in 'Life Support.'
Photo by Alastair Muir
Over but not out
By John Gross
Life Support at the Aldwych
SIMON Gray's new play, Life Support, at the Aldwych
Theatre, offers us a double vision. Life doesn't stop being absurd
because it is tragic. It doesn't stop being tragic because it
The hero, Jeff, is a successful author who
writes humorous books about his supposed misadventures (generally
made up in the safety of his hotel room) in faraway places: "Bananas
in Borneo", "A Chump in China". If he wrote an
account of his most recent expedition, it would probably be called
"A Bee-Sting in Guadeloupe". It would describe an incident
at least as bizarre as anything in his previous work -- only
this time it would be true.
For once his wife, Gwen, accompanied him
on a trip. For once he ventured into the dangerous world beyond
his hotel. Gwen was stung by a bee; through an understandable
misunderstanding, he interfered with the first aid which might
have saved her. Now she lies in a hospital bedroom in London,
sunk in a coma -- a "persistent vegetative state".
He is constantly at her bedside: guilty, anguished, sometimes
angry, desperate to bring her back to life.
His situation sounds about as stark and simple
as you could well imagine, but grotesque complications soon set
in. There is a godlike figure in charge of the case, Mr. Rolls.
Like God, he never appears; instead, his assistant, a cheerful
young Irishman called Pat, encourages Jeff to play the supportive
spouse. Jeff conducts conversations with Gwen, mimicking her
Sometimes she appears (in his fantasy, one
assumes) to regain consciousness and answer back. It becomes
clear that their marriage has had abundant ups and downs -- the
downs mostly fuelled by Jeff's infidelities and Gwen's alcohol
intake. That doesn't make his love for her any less genuine or,
under current circumstances, any less painful.
Jeff also enlists such help as he can find.
His brother Jack, an unsuccessful actor, comes round to sponge
off him and is forced to direct his requests for a loan to Gwen.
His literary agent, Julia, comes round with some contracts to
sign; insterad he gets her to tell Gwen about the affair they
have had, in the hope that it will trigger a reaction.
Nothing works. The vegetative state persists.
Affable, pot-smoking, chess-playing Dr. Pat turns out to have
his own agenda. By the end, we wonder whether (or how long) Jeff
is going to be able to resist the invitation to pull the plug.
The play is a sombre one. Jeff is trapped.
As long as there is life, and hope, he can't even grieve properly
for Gwen -- or rather, he suffers from that deadly state which
Coleridge described as "a grief without a pang".
The play is also an entertaining one. It
is full of witty lines, ingenious fancies, neatly engineered
double-takes. And though it seems unfair to complain, since we
wouldn't really want Simon Gray to expose us to too much dull
misery, there are times when we begin to feel that the jokes
have become unduly at odds with the tragic central theme.
The disparity is largely conjured away, however,
by Alan Bates's performance as Jeff. His words are often flip
and cynical -- rightly so, since he is a man who is still honest
enough to recognise the extent of his own phoniness. But his
gestures and expressions superbly convey the depths of pain underneath.
There are fine supporting performances -- from Nickolas Grace
as Jack and Frank McCusker as Pat; from Georgina Hale, a haunting
Gwen, and Carole Nimmons looking exactly like a literary agent
as Julia. Harold Pinter's direction aims for clarity with entire
success. It is an absorbing evening, and an intelligent one.
10 August 1997
Copyright 1997 Telegraph Group Limited.