The Theatreguide.London Review
The Late Middle Classes
Donmar Theatre Summer 2010
A man returns to memories of his childhood and realises what he couldn't see then, how imperfect and unhappy the adults around him were.
That's really about it, as far as Simon Gray's 1999 drama goes, and the knowledge that it is strongly autobiographical doesn't really add much to what, when you come down to it, is little more than a well-written soap opera episode.
Except for a frame in the present, the play is set in the 1950s on an English coastal island much like the one on which Gray grew up.
Young Holly, roughly 13 or so, observes but does not fully comprehend his unhappy and love-starved mother, his disappointed-with-life and emotionally stifled father, the immigrant piano teacher whose interest in his pupil may not be entirely musical, and that man's agoraphobic mother, anticipating the Gestapo at the door at any moment.
Mother and father look up from their self-absorption just long enough to overreact to the piano teacher's probably chaste interest in their son, and a fortuitous school scholarship takes them away and ends the episode.
Eugene O'Neill and to a lesser extent Tennessee Williams and even Neil Simon were successful in raising autobiographical material to tragic heights and resonant drama, but Gray's story too infrequently rises above the level of personal anecdote.
The most resonant observations are almost throwaways - the parents' casual anti-Semitism that reaches its peak when the worst insult the father can hurl at the teacher is not homosexual or paedophile but Jew, the immigrant woman's paranoia, the grown Holly's passing revelations that he is more like his father than he might yet realise.
Meanwhile the simple dramaturgy is clumsy, with almost nothing happening in the long first act, which is all just extended introduction to the characters.
Then the second act opens with a bit of melodrama which is a total red herring (and which, incidentally, happens outside Holly's hearing and seeing, violating the memory premise of the play).
David Leveaux's direction can't disguise any of these flaws and limitations, though the admirably hard-working cast - Helen McCrory as mother, Peter Sullivan as father, Robert Glenister as teacher, Eleanor Bron as his mother, and a rotating trio of boys (I saw the quite impressive Harvey Allpress) - do manage to create and sustain moments of reality out of what are little more than stock characters.
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