The Theatreguide.London Review
The Last Cigarette
Trafalgar Studios Spring 2009
A dying writer's ruminations on life, love and the cigarettes that are killing him prove to be surprisingly warm and entertaining in this stage adaptation of Simon Gray's last books.
For the last ten years or so of his life, Gray was more a memoirist than a playwright, publishing several slim volumes of diaries, reminiscences and stream-of-consciousness musings. His last project before his death in 2008 was a collaboration with friend and fellow dramatist Hugh Whitemore on a play drawn from those books.
The obvious form would have been a monologue, but it was Whitemore who came up with the idea of dividing Gray's voice among three actors, one of them female.
This creates a fresh kind of drama, as the three Simons, dressed identically and based at identical desks, sometimes seem to be brainstorming, cueing or inspiring each other's memories, so that the comments and narratives appear as fresh inventions rather than prepared recitations.
(The device also allows them to take turns playing secondary roles in each other's narratives - friends, family, doctors, and the like.)
The central irony of the work, of which Gray the diarist was fully aware, is that the sixty-a-day habit that would generate the cancer in his lungs represented one of the few reliable and ongoing pleasures of his life, and there is a lot of happy - and generally choreographed in unison - lighting up on the part of the performers.
Thoughts of death lead to thoughts of life, and to memories of youth, and much of the first half of the evening is devoted to the three Simons helping each other remember incidents of growing up.
We hear of idiosyncratic parents and other adults, of the pure and uncomplicated love for a baby brother, of a crush on another schoolboy that might have been more but probably wasn't, of loves and losses - none of them especially unique, but all made real and touching in the telling.
Act One ends with the discovery of his lung cancer, and the second act is devoted to medical adventures - to doctors and nurses who are as eccentric as anyone else in his life, to his own inevitable but no less surprising mood swings, to the terrors of waiting for a test report and the pleasures of a sunny day at the beach or a visit with an old friend.
The biggest surprise and pleasure of the evening, for those who may find Gray's prose clever but cold, is the warmth and humanity of the stage version. And for that much credit must go to director Richard Eyre and the three performers, Jasper Britton, Nicholas Le Prevost and Felicity Kendal.
The script does not divide Simon into distinct personalities, but each of the actors brings a personality to his or her share of the character.
Le Prevost seems the most bemused by his character's adventures, always observing with an awareness of his own absurdity. In contrast, Britton tends to live more in the moment being narrated, playing the clown rather than watching him. And Kendal brings a warmth and, yes, sexiness to her third of the character, enriching it in unexpected but totally appropriate ways.
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