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The Common Pursuit

Simon Gray
Menier Chocolate Factory
(2008)

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Director Fiona Laird has put together a cast of TV stars to draw audiences into the Menier for this Simon Gray revival. The mix is slightly odd with some fairly wacky actors not always quite getting the spirit of a two decade old comedy that is determinedly literary in its interests.

Simon Gray has created his own little, enclosed world so that one instantly knows what to expect. As ever, he provides lots of chatter amongst Oxbridge-educated intellectuals, wry humour and the odd pretty girl thrown in.

F.R. Leavis' The Common Pursuit was compulsory reading for generations of undergraduates who studied English at Cambridge, like the playwright and his alter ego Stuart.

On this occasion, though, it is the name of a literary journal that Stuart, played by Robert Portal complete with Simon Gray hairstyle, wishes to publish with a group of enthusiastic, oddball friends rather than go out into the real world to earn some money.

Stuart almost fails to get the project off the ground, as the highbrow magazine has to complete with the attractions of sex with Pre-Raphaelite beauty Marigold, played by Mary Stockley. As we follow this pairing and four other college pals across quarter of a century, it becomes apparent that these two topics are destined to interact painfully on a regular basis.

First seen in Stuart's rather sparse, Cambridge rooms, which later give way to other settings designed by Anthony Lamble along the Menier's unique conveyor belt, the group certainly seem eccentric.

The most interesting is Ben Caplan's shy, immature Martin, the man destined to remain closest to the impecunious protagonist. Eventually when times are at their hardest, taking him on when as an associate in his publishing business. Additionally, this apparently monastic publisher becomes a permanent gooseberry in the relationship with Marigold.

Gimme Gimme Gimme star, James Dreyfus gets most of the best lines and also the deepest characterisation playing Humphrey, a not very well closeted homosexual poet-philosopher with a self-destructive impulse.

Gray is often at his best when he plants time-bombs that go off as fascinating plot developments or tremendous jokes much later in the play. For whatever reason, nearly all of those jokes end up with Humphrey, which is great news for James Dreyfus.

The other pair are both particularly odious. Reece Shearsmith from The League of Gentlemen plays Nick a kind of Melvyn Bragg figure with Kenneth Tynan overtones. He also has the playwright's attitude to cigarettes, as exemplified in his long series of Smoking Diaries, most recently The Last Cigarette.

Finally, former EastEnder Nigel Harman is serial philanderer Peter, who, despite his status as an Oxbridge Don, produces badly written coffee table books, primarily as an excuse to cheat on his unseen wife, Erica.

The Common Pursuit has many funny moments and offers us a glimpse of life amongst the intelligensia. Surprisingly, since it is only twenty years old, it seems to come from a completely different era, when smoking was compulsory, sexual freedom a novelty and literature mattered.

Despite (or because of) apparently casting some parts more for commercial than artistic reasons, this two-hour long production should do well, thanks to its celebrity attractions, and will at the very least gently amuse those who make the trip.

Running until 20th July

Reviewer: Philip Fisher