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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Otherwise Engaged
Criterion Theatre       Winter 2005-2006

In Simon Gray's 1975 play a man settles down for a pleasant afternoon of listening to his new recording of Wagner, only to be constantly interrupted by friends, family and others.

The cool politeness with which he tries to get rid of them is gradually exposed as a darker contempt and annoyance, as we discover that his urbane veneer hides a self-absorbed hatred for anyone and everyone who trespasses on his carefully constructed and maintained contentment.

It is occasionally shocking, more frequently witty, and even in this flawed production directed by Simon Curtis, it can be a satisfying mix of light entertainment and not-too-heavy thoughtfulness.

Richard E. Grant plays the man at the centre of things, in what seems at first ideal casting - few can match Grant in withering scowls and put-downs.

But it turns out to be mistake on the order of, say, casting Bob Hoskins as a man we only gradually discover to be Cockney. Instead of letting us be shocked by the slow unmasking of the man's disconnectedness, Grant gives it all away from the start, his urbanity never rising above sliminess and his smile charged with visible anger.

Compounding this directorial error is the fact that, with the possible exception of Grant's character's wife, all the visitors are played as significantly inferior to him - the brother wallowing in his own second-rateness, the annoyingly dim young neighbour, etc. - so that we are led to identify with Grant's patronising and then open contempt for them, rather than being disturbed by it.

The rest of the cast is very uneven. Amanda Ryan cannot make a would-be seductress interesting, even when she plays a long scene topless, and Amanda Drew as the wife and Peter Wight as the brother are equally blank.

Anthony Head brings some life to the proceedings as a drunken friend, mainly by expressing more energy than anyone else (including Grant, whose style is the laid-back zinger), and David Bamber is droll as one of life's lifelong losers whose only vengeance on the golden boys is to impose his boring self on them.

But such is the power of Gray's acerbic wit and Grant's stage presence that the play still works, even if not quite in the ideal way and without anywhere really to go after the first few scenes.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Otherwise Engaged - CriterionTheatre 2005
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