Friday, May 30, 2008
The Menier Misses The Mark
I was primed to like this. In common with many children of immigrants I have always had a fascination with certain English institutions and gobbled up films and novels with an Oxford or Cambridge setting as a teenager. But, despite my initial enthusiasm and despite the odd moment of poignancy, this production failed to particularly move or touch me.
Simon Gray’s The Common Pursuit, which the Menier Chocolate Factory are currently reviving in a break from staging musicals, begins in Cambridge of the 1960s. A group of students are in the process of setting up a literary magazine named after an essay collection by FR Leavis. They’re not a particularly likeable bunch but there is something appealing in their intellectual idealism, their desire to leave their mark. But, inevitably, as the years pass, compromises are made, standards are lowered, life weighs down on them – in terms of narrative we’ve been here many, many times before.
Fiona Laird’s production is a curiously blunt affair, slamming much of the subtlety out of the play, flattening it out. None of the actors really convince as students alive with creative energy in the opening scene, so, as they succumb to hack jobs at the BBC (a very Bad Thing indeed in the play’s narrow view of the world) or to extramarital liaisons at the Charing Cross Hotel with women whose names they can’t remember, there is some key thing missing, some necessary hook – it’s difficult to care that much about their various dramas and infidelities
From a performance point of view the production is very mixed bag. James Dreyfus, an actor whose appeal I’ve never really got before now, is very good indeed as Humphrey, the possibly brilliant poet whose self criticism is such he ends up unable to write, frozen, lost. He always stands a little apart from the others, keeping his distance, occasionally breaking in with a waspish comment, but drawing a line between himself and his friends. Reece Shearsmith’s Nick was rather disappointing, far broader in comparison and his various tics were very reminiscent, perhaps inevitably, of his League Of Gentlemen creations (though, in his favour, he was the only one who appeared to age in any noticeable way over the near twenty-year period that the play covers). As for Mary Stockley’s Marigold, the lover and then wife of the magazine’s editor, it’s difficult to judge her performance given how underwritten a part it is, she exists purely to provide a plot twist, a mistress in waiting.
I concede it may be an age thing but I really couldn’t grasp what it was about the production that moved Charles Spencer to tears. But having read the Guardian blog about Gray’s diaries, I suspect I may be making an Amazon purchase or two this weekend as I’ve not read them and they sound rather wonderful.