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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Menier Chocolate Factory


  James Dreyfus, Ben Caplan, Reece Shearsmith & Nigel Harman

The dystopia that is made of all too many lives proves worth re-examining - just about - in the new Menier Chocolate Factory production of The Common Pursuit, the Simon Gray play from 1984 that one could argue has suffered the blows of time in accordance with the majority of its keenly intelligent, abundantly self-critical Oxbridge set. It's not just that one is perhaps more easily wearied than might once have been the case by exchanges along the lines of, Are you distraught, to which the reply comes, No, perfectly traught. But as the play moves forward nearly 20 years, starting in 1968 only to circle back on itself for a not particularly wounding epilogue, you find yourself impatiently wishing for, say, Stephen Sondheim to give the proceedings some real punch. No, wait, Sondheim did just that in the comparably themed Merrily We Roll Along, a musical that, of course, works backwards from cynicism and despair to its protagonists' hopeful rooftop meeting.

The action here begins in the Cambridge rooms of Robert Portal's Stuart, who is starting a literary magazine by the title of The Common Pursuit, the name itself paying homage to the enduring legacy of the late Cambridge-born critic and scholar, FR Leavis, who published a work of that very title in 1952. Scarcely have we clocked the Godard poster on the wall before we meet the chappish entourage populating a play that makes room for only one woman, Marigold, eventual wife to Stuart - and lover to one of his best friends. The lone distaff assignment is taken by an appropriately blonde Mary Stockley, herself an alumna of the Donmar's defining 2000 production of Merrily We Roll Along, in which she played Beth. The men, in turn, include Reece Shearsmith's manic, cough-wracked Nick, who dreams of being the theater critic for The Sunday Times but ends up in a prominent TV job that is far less highbrow if presumably rather better paid- Ben Caplan's quietly doting Martin, Stuart's business partner and the least fully dramatized character of the lot- Nigel Harman's womanizing Peter, whose coiffeur seems to rise and fall along with his sexual and marital fortunes- and the acerbic, music-loving Humphry (James Dreyfus), whose lifelong dreams of penning a tome on Richard Wagner are cut short by a penchant for gay encounters of the riskiest kind. Dreyfus, in a career-defining performance, brings a pair of deeply skeptical eyebrows to a poignantly knowing account of a senior moral tutor and truth-teller who is hiding all sorts of truths from himself. His eyes narrowing as if to acknowledge the depredations of a world in which he feels none too comfortable, Dreyfus makes the doomed Humphry into easily the play's most piquant character. Amid a script in which the plot seems to be guiding its characters and not the other way round (you can tick off the allotted infidelities and insecurities almost by rote), Humphrey exerts a humanity, however thwarted, that won't surrender itself up easily to Gray's allotted game plan.

Otherwise, the director Fiona Laird's sympathetic ear for Gray's ultimately rather grim collective mines the sardonic humor to a text in which selling a story to Vogue is seen as the ultimate capitulation to commercialism. (How times have indeed changed!) It's scarcely her fault if the textual revelations more than ever seem to arrive piecemeal, a crucial transfer of affections simply there to be taken on faith given the emotional opacity surrounding it. One pay's tribute to the evening's capacity to engage that we feel as if we come to know such a disparate array of unseen presences as Humphry's ageing father, Peter's first wife, and even Martin's cat, Samantha, each of whom (which?) features somewhere along the way in


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