The Last Cigarette

Simon Gray and Hugh Whitemore
Chichester Festival production
Trafalgar Studios 1
(2009)

Production photo

The Last Cigarette is Simon Gray's elegy to himself. The text is based on the later books in the diary sequence that ended with Coda, an exploration of the lifelong smoker's impending death, which is the primary subject of this play.

The Grays were an intelligent family but prone to fatal addictions, as we learn in the longer first act. Mother and Father both succumbed to lung cancer, while his beloved younger brother Piers found alcohol a quicker way to dusty death.

They are each seen through a series of sketched impressions, the most memorable being of the playwright's doctor father's dalliance with his secretary, the much patronised Little Mrs Rolls, and mother's violent but seemingly unwarranted attacks on her not unnaturally unruly sons.

This is told well but hardly dramatically. However, director Richard Eyre utilises a relatively novel solution to adaptation by having the protagonist, Simon played simultaneously by three contrasting actors, frequently using a jaunty music hall treble act approach that at its most exuberant almost mimics the Marx Brothers.

They finish each other's lines and, when the need arises, play the roles of people with whom Gray interacts. It is perhaps inevitable that Felicity Kendal plays the women, while Nicholas Le Prevost gets the doctors and Jasper Britton his close friend and fellow cancer victim, Harold Pinter.

Ironically, the best of the grim comedy stems from the time when Gray and his devoted wife Victoria are told that cancer will end the septuagenarian's life within a year, later extended in an unexpectedly upbeat ending. This counterpoints with a couple of witty, advertising-style appreciations of the cigarettes.

The stage version of the diaries cannot really compete with the original, although it brings out some of the affection that Gray felt for his closest companions and conveys the difficulty that an intelligent man suffers when given what is to all intents and purposes a death sentence. It is at its best in portraying its originator, in all of his cantankerous low moments but with a sense of (gallows) humour never too far from the surface.

The main attraction of the evening is to pay homage to a great playwright (though the stage career is practically ignored) and see three actors working so well together to show different sides to the same character, one bumptious (Le Prevost), another wryly respectable (Britton) and the last wicked and feminine (Miss Kendal).

It will be interesting to see whether this Chichester transfer can draw in the crowds with such dark subject matter, even allowing for the appeal of the stars and the popularity of Simon Gray, whose work is regularly revived to great acclaim.

Sheila Connor reviewed this production at Chichester

Reviewer: Philip Fisher