The Theatreguide.London Review
The Holy Terror
Duke of York's Theatre Spring 2004
You can think of Simon Gray's latest as a play on its own terms or as a vehicle for star Simon Callow. It is somewhat more successful as the second than as the first.
First, the play itself. This is actually a rewrite of a play Gray called Melon back in 1994, when it starred Alan Bates and wasn't very successful.
It's the story of a successful publisher's mental breakdown, and my hazy memory of the first version is that it was played straight.
This rewrite has more humour in it, and also a frame, as Mark Melon is giving a talk on his career to a Women's Institute (Americans: think Junior League) audience.
As he chats about his successes as a publisher and how he marched in his unstoppable way through all his associates, seducing the women and manipulating the men, there are hints that he is not fully in control.
Slips of the tongue, unmanageable rambling and accounts of ever-more sadistic practical jokes hint at a man who was falling apart even at his peak.
By Act Two, the flashbacks show Mark wildly manic and also paranoid, as a loving joke with his wife about her imaginary boyfriend turns into the obsession that she has in fact been unfaithful.
The play loses its way for a bit as Mark's breakdown leads to a satire of psychiatrists and their methods, but eventually, more or less cured, he is the chastened, somewhat reduced figure we see before us, the final joke being the discovery that his talk is part of a lecture series by losers.
I've given that much detail just to show that, considerable wit ('I don't want to make the same mistake my parents made, which was me.') aside, there isn't much there in the way of statement or insight into the human condition.
And there isn't much new, either. You may already have spotted that this is essentially a soft-centred remake of John Osborne's play Inadmissible Evidence.
There it was a lawyer, here a publisher; there an imaginary courtroom speech, here a women's club; there a teenage daughter, here a son, and so on. There, excruciating self-exposure and self-hatred, here bemused wonderment at the shape of his life.
What there is, though, is a marvellous role for an actor who enjoys, and is capable of, seizing the stage and holding it uninhibitedly - an actor, in short, like Simon Callow.
Callow is onstage without interruption, and talking directly to us much of the time. He gets to be witty and funny; to tell us what he's going to do to the others, do it, and then revel in his own accomplishment; to go from confidence to shaken uncertainty to total collapse and then subdued modesty; to rant and rave and roll around the floor.
In short, he gets to do all the things actors love to do, and he can dot hem all delightfully well.
Callow is an actor of grand effects and broad strokes - quiet subtlety is not really within his range - and he is in his element here.
Few other actors could take this essentially unbelievable character and run with him so successfully and with such obvious and infectious fun that he takes us enthusiastically with him.
There's a supporting cast - Robin Soans, Tom Beard and others - but only Geraldine Alexander as the wife trying her hardest to hang on to the man falling apart before her eyes really has much to do, and she does it well.
No, the evening is Simon Callow's, and if you're a fan, you'll want to see The Holy Terror.
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