Otherwise Engaged

Simon Gray
Criterion Theatre
(2005)

In his notes in the programme, Simon Gray is at pains to deny that the protagonist in Otherwise Engaged, Simon Hench is autobiographical. Apparently, the choice of the name Simon was made because it was "the first name that came into my head". One imagines that Freudian psychologists might quite easily explain why this was the case.

One hopes that the denial really is correct as this self-centred - or, more accurately, self-obsessed - publisher is not the pleasantest of men and with 30 years perspective, the writer might reasonably be embarrassed if he really did behave like this.

There is at least one big difference between writer and subject in this production, as on opening night, Gray was to be seen just outside the theatre fervently puffing away on a beloved cigarette while Richard E Grant playing the other Simon was abstemious in this respect, if in no other.

Revivals of plays from this period are currently in vogue, especially those that look at middle-class sexual freedom amongst the intelligentsia. There is clearly a nostalgia for the 1970s which is perhaps fitting as the main players of the day are now approaching or just beyond retirement age.

Earlier this year, Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist made a successful reappearance, following hard on the heels of Sir Tom Stoppard's Jumpers and The Real Thing (actually 1982) and, in a slightly different vein, Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party.

Director Simon Curtis is brave to take on this play in view of the fact that it was so successful when it launched in 1975 with Alan Bates playing Simon under the direction of Harold Pinter, who then took it to Broadway a couple of years later for a long run with Tom Courtenay taking over from Bates.

The comedy centres on successful publisher, Hench, and allows its audience to watch his generally impassive reactions to events and people passing through the trendy Islington apartment that designer Simon Higlett has created for him.

This is a busy home as people constantly appear. At the younger end of the scale, there are sexy Davina played by Amanda Ryan whose methods of seduction can hardly be described as subtle and penniless student charity case Dave (Liam Garrigan).

Davina has arrived courtesy of the awful Jeff Golding, well played by handsome Nescafe man Anthony Head. He is that notorious stage type: the obnoxious literary critic who hates literature but loves women (or more accurately having sex at them).

This group contrasts with Peter Wight as Simon's brother Stephen, an overweight public school teacher hardly worthy of notice in this company and Bernard Wood. David Bamber plays this distraught and possibly suicidal little man who has apparently lost his daughter following her fling with the publisher. If either of these normal men had expected sympathy as result of their journey to Islington, they were sadly both disabused and abused.

The best performance of the night comes from Amanda Drew as Simon's tearful wife Beth. She is the woman who finally draws a reaction by announcing an affair. It is not the fact of the affair that shocks Simon but the name of her lover. Poor unseen schoolteacher Ned offends her husband's snobbish sensibilities and one is left to conclude that had she been sleeping with some philosophy student, he could not have been more delighted.

Eventually, one realises that Simon Gray views people very much in black-and-white. His men are either happy-go-lucky philanderers, for whom success is a given, or struggling workhorses who can be used as the butt of jokes or a reminder that society has an underside. The women fare little better, being either brazen sex objects offering one night stands or sensitive but downtrodden victims.

Richard E Grant plays Simon as a cold fish who is absolutely indifferent to human kindness and has an air of permanent boredom as the world revolves around him. Humanity only begins to impinge on this man's outward impassivity towards the end of the play, following Beth's appearance.

Otherwise Engaged is beginning to show its age and some of the jokes miss completely before a 21st century audience. As a piece of social history, it may well prove successful and with well-known names in the leads and some very funny moments, could run for some time.

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Otherwise Engaged
.

Philip Fisher