Friday, 16 July 2010


14/07/10, Donmar
Revival of Simon Gray's 1999 play (which apparently never made it to the West End) about repression, prejudice and hypocrisy circa 1950. We are on an island connected to Portsmouth by a ferry, but not the Isle of Wight. I spent a good deal of time trying to work out which island. Was it Hayling? Was it a fictional island? There was a ferry in 1950, running to Portsmouth, but between the 1950s and the 1990s a bridge was built. Hayling has had a bridge since 1824 so it couldn't be there, I thought. In fact I think it must have been... but pointlessly worrying about the question proved thoroughly distracting.

A bright only child is being taught the piano by a mittel European emigre, who lives with his caricature of a mother. The child's parents are a dull, buttoned-up pathologist and his bright and brittle wife, unhappily coming to terms with a stifling middle class existence of indifferent tennis and dried eggs after the excitements of war work, and desperate for her son to get a scholarship to Westminster so the family can move to London.

The mother was Helen McCrory, utterly believable in her frustration and sometimes outrageous behaviour and in her complex relationship with her son ("Do you love me?" "Of course I do, Mummy." "Why?" "Because you're my mother." "Couldn't you have found another reason?").
The father (and the adult son, returning to see his old music teacher at the start and finish of the play) was Peter Sullivan, new to us, buttoned up to the point of speaking in a barely audible monotone which annoyed me for a while but then paid generous comic dividends in the scene in which he tried to tell his son the facts of life (and never managed to, interrupting himself time and again until finally managing to blurt out the word "masturbation", at which point he's interrupted by his wife).

The teacher was Robert Glenister, his mother Eleanor Bron. I'm not sure who played the boy (there are three actors rotating in the part) but he was jolly good. The plot revolves around the teacher's evident sexual longing for the boy which he seems commendably to repress. Their relationship is platonic. But when they fail to return on time from a trip to London the worst is feared, the father goes round to see the teacher's mother, and disaster follows. The parents assume the teacher and his mother are Jewish, something the mother denies in outraged but futile terms. It is clear from what the boy says that nothing reprehensible happened. But it's also clear from what the mother tells the boy's father that there has been trouble in the past and mother and son have been forced to move more than once.

One of the play's great frissons comes when the teacher returns to confront the angry father who shouts at him: "you.... Jew!" One expected "pervert".

Well acted (though Eleanor Bron may have overdone the hand waving and cakes), neatly skewering not only 1950s hypocrisy but also our modern discomfort with the problem of paedophilia. Beautifully ambiguous. And simply staged, a grand piano on a revolve signifying changes of scene between the family's front room and the music teacher's, with a few chairs and tables.

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