Simon Gray is best known for the plays he wrote in the 1970s and 1980s that were directed by Harold Pinter and starred Alan Bates : BUTLEY, OTHERWISE ENGAGED and MELON. They are all studies in the mid-life crisis of brilliant, but self-destructive men. They probably look quite dated now. Unlike Pinter's, elliptical characters, Grays's peple tend to be garrulous, delivering long verbal riffs, usually to get an extreme reaction out of the listener.
THE LATE MIDDLE CLASSES originally closed out of town. After successful runs outside of London, the producers couldn't find a theater for it. It probably was not commercial enough material for a Shaftesbury Avenue theater. Nonetheless, it won awards. Finally, eleven years later, it is being produced at the Donmar Warehouse. The play is less funny than Gray's hit plays. Set in the early 1950s, it centers on an unhappy family living on the Isle of Wight. The mother has social ambitions and feels trapped on the island and dreams of getting to London. She drives her son to academic and musical success so he can get a scholarship to a London private school. Her husband, a pathologist, is an old school, emotionally constipated upper middle class Englishman who even has an affair because it seemed rude to turn the woman down. The boys primary relationship is with a strange middle-aged Viennese piano teacher who seems to have been a child molester in the past. Like the boy,he has a problematic relationship with an alcoholic, somewhat hysterical mother.
Some of the scenes are well written and enjoyable to witness, but the play, like most of Gray's work doesn't add up to much. At the end, one wonders exactly what Gray was trying to do here. Is it simply about the destructiveness of upper middle class English prejudices of the early 1950s (Daddy is a anti-Semite, Mommy a snob). To both homosexuality is beneath contempt. The mother is constantly demanding of her eleven year old son protestations of love she'll never receive from her husband. Somehow I felt I've been in this territory before in better written plays and films. The cast was good. Rose McCrory made the mother believable. Peter Sullivan did his best with her husband, but he is a stereotype. The best performance was Robert Glenister's as the piano teacher who is a master of mixed signals. The worst was Eleanor Bron's scenery chewing as his mother. David Leveaux directed but couldn't give the play a coherence it doesn't have.
THE LATE MIDDLE CLASSES by Simon Gray. Donmar Warehouse Theatre. June 17, 2010.