9 AUGUST 1975, Page 25


Not listening when the bell tolls

Kenneth Hurren

Otherwise Engaged by Simon Gray (Queen's Theatre) Murder at the Vicarage, adapted by Mole Charles and Barbara Toy from the novel by Agatha Christie (Savoy Theatre) Hinge and Bracket by George Logan and Patrick Fyffe (Ambassadors) As in Butley four years ago, so in Otherwise Engaged Simon Gray confines his action to a single intimidatingly wearing day in the life of his central character — a man whom he identifies, curiously, only as 'Simon'. (No reason why not, of , course; just struck me as a touch strange; not quite narcissistic since there is no suggestion that the play is at all autobiographical, but demonstrating an odd and irrelevant infatuation with his own name. It might, on the other hand, be a teasing invitation to us all to seek some deep Significance in it — an invitation herewith declined — or simply an impatient reluctance to devote any time to a matter of such minor importance as nomenclature.) Simon (not Gray, the one in the play) is a publisher, and evidentally ,a successful one to judge from his handsorrte modern pad (setting by Eileen Diss) and from the fact that he is able to let a flat in his house for the token rent of £2 a week to an unappetising student as some sort of sop to a liberal conscience, it would be typical of him that he should make this gesture and thus be able thereaftir to put from his mind any thought that may be likely to bother him about the impecuniosity of students in general, for other people's problems are not Simon's favourite preoccupation; when they crop up he is likely to be otherwise engaged.

It is his attitude to life in this respect that Gray seeks to explore, and on the day we observe him Simon's studied detachment is put under some stress. Settling down at home to listen in peace to an LP of Parsifa/, he is hardly into the overture before he is beleaguered by a succession of callers, all of whom wish tiresomely to involve him in some way in their awful lives. The relentless flow of buttonholing visitors, on the whole unconnected with each other, may seem, on the face of it, to call for a rather special narrative skill on the part of the playwright, but Gray is not one to concern himself with the formal, old-fashioned niceties of construction, such as giving his characters persuasive reasons for coming on and going off the stage. When the pattern of his play demands that they come on, he beings them on; when he wants them off, they leave; just like that. Well, why not? The casual dispatch with which the business is attended to might have given a man like Pinero, or even Terence Rattigan, a small haemorrhage, but it saves a lot of trouble and if it is, perhaps, a little destructive of plausibility, I'm sure Gray would contend that he is not giving a precisely literal , account of Simon's day, anyway; he is just lining out the difficulties that can beset a man who wants to fly in the face of Donne and regard himself as an island.

The student gives him his first trouble. He is ha'Ciing some difficulty with a girl who is fastidiously declining to sleep with him, at least without a modicum • of routine persuasion. Simon receives these insights into his tenant's distasteful lifestyle with remarkably civil forebearance and lends him a fiver to help him with his plans. If all bridges from the mainland could be demolished so easily, there would be no serious threat to the island. As it happens, though, the lad returns later to take nasty umbrage when Simon declines to lend him a treasured coffee-set, which the young fellow feels is the least he should be able to expect from a man who has expense-account lunches and rides in taxis. (He is, of course, a sociology student when he is not, as he puts it, `sitting-in'.) Meanwhile, there are other invaders, who are to be not so much repelled (which would betoken too active an acknowledgement of

their existence-) as listened to with a courtesy strongly tinged with indifference. Simon's brother comes in and goes on boringly about his prospects of becoming assistant headmaster of some dim public school. A friend — a literary critic who, in the fashion of his dissolute trade, is almost wholly preoccupied by sex and wholly contemptuous of the writers about whom he writes so pretentiously — comes in and goes on even more boringly about his carnal proclivities and also gets fairly drunk. One of the critic's bedmates turns up, enunciating her lines, for reasons that eluded me, like Eliza Doolittle at Mrs Higgins's teaparty, sends the critic packing with the news that his ex-wife (with whom he has been having a steamy post-marital affair) has attempted suicide, but stays on herself, strips to the waist and offers Simon her body and the manuscript of a book she is writing. He is willing professionally to consider her book, but declines her body, being generally dismayed by her behaviour and perhaps also by the stilted manner of her conversation. It is not, certainly, that he is averse to sexual experience, for his next visitor is an old schoolfellow, whom he has not seen for twenty years but who turns up now to complain that he was one of the few older boys to whom Simon did not extend homosexual favours while at school, and to complain more immediately that Simon has lately added injury to this insult by seducing his fiancée. He then goes off to shoot himself, but even this does not leave Simon free to get back to Parsifal. He has first to survive an encounter with his wife, returned from the arms of her lover to confess her faithlessness, proclaim her pregnancy and announce that she is leaving him because she and her riew man wish to live together and be husband and wife to each other.

This is too much for Simon. "Husband and wife — to each other?" he says, pained by her syntactical gaffe, but I don't think it is Gray's intention that we should regard it as a fatal assault on his Achilles' heel. He seems just to want to show us the essential callousness of a man as detached and disinterested as Simon, who never sends to know for whom the bell tolls; he just puts his hands over his ears. 1 cannot say that I ever altogether believed in him or cared about him, or even about his various tormentors, but his nice concern with language and the shape of sentences, and his interestingly sardonic turns of phrase make him — however unsufferable he might be on personal acquaintance — an entertaining character to have on a stage.

Fortunately he is on the stage throughout the play, in the hands of Alan Bates giving one of those imperturbably relaxed performances he gives so well (and so often), with admirable support from Benjamin Whitrow as the suicidal old schoolfellow, Nigel Hawthorne as the brother, Julian Glover as the journalist and Mary Miller as the wife. Harold Pinter directs the play and despite being, if I have correctly read the prints, somewhat otherwise engaged himself, handles it with the loving care he can be depended upon to bring to other people's literary pieces, and with that unerring sense of atmosphere which 1 never feel to be quite enough in his own plays but which makes him as expert a director as he is an adapter of the works of others.

Adaptation has done nothing helpful for Agatha Christie's Murder at the Vicarage which, unless its author's reputationL (I write as one with no personal knowledge of her books) is built on a total absence of conviction in plot, and dialogue and characters alike unspeakable, and mysteries created by deliberate deception, must be one of her shoddiest yarns. The stage version has been around for a quarter of a century all over the place, which is a reflection of an alarming incidence of masochism among playgoers. Barbara Mullen plays Miss Marple, as she did in the original production, a remarkable example of a career standing absolutely still.

The Hinge and Bracket show offers a couple of female impersonators camping their way through the scrapbook reminiscences of two spinsters of the musical stage who have travelled the country for thirty years in Gilbert and Sullivan, Noel Coward and Ivor Novell°, and in search of a husband — "each", as one of them remarks. The chuckles narrowly outnumber the squirms.