Helen McCrory, Peter Sullivan, Robert Glenister, Eleanor Bron, Harvey Allpress
Simon Grays semi-autobiographical dark comedy was notoriously prevented from being staged in a West End theatre by a boy-band musical in 1999.
Now, two years after the playwrights death, The Late Middle Classes finally receives its due recognition as one of Grays finest works.
Though the bulk of the action takes place in the early 1950s, it is bookended by two scenes set 30 years later.
Now living in Australia, middle-aged psychiatrist Holly visits his elderly former piano teacher Mr Brownlow on Hayling Island, off the south coast of England, where he grew up. Moving back, we see events unfold involving the 12-year-old Holly, his loving but demanding mother Celia, his distant pathologist father Charles, and the Austrian wartime refugees Brownlow and his mother Ellie, which have devastating consequences for all for the rest of their lives.
The play shows how Holly, just discovering his own sexuality, unwittingly becomes the focus of adult needs and hopes. Celia, bored and lonely, and longing to return to London, as her husband always seems to be working and she feels excluded by local women, repeatedly asks Holly to say he loves her. The even more isolated Brownlow not only regards Holly as his muse amidst a philistine culture, but forms an intense (if platonic) homosexual emotional attachment to him.
Gray beautifully captures a mood of drab frustration in the post-war austerity years of powdered eggs and rationed feelings, in a claustrophobically genteel community within whose domestic interiors lurk adultery, homophobia and anti-Semitism. But he is also sometimes extremely funny in his depiction of middle-class mores, such as when the reserved Charles reluctantly tries but utterly fails to explain to his son the facts of life in a hilarious example of miscommunication which has more serious effects elsewhere.
David Leveauxs well-balanced production does full justice to both the tragic and comic aspects of the play, while Mike Brittons set in which even door and windows are wallpapered over emphasizes the covering up of secrets, fears and desires.
Helen McCrory strongly conveys both Celias bitchy social snobbery and her emotional vulnerability, and Peter Sullivan brings out the intolerant double-standards of bourgeois respectability in Charles. Robert Glenister is creepily moving in his portrait of Brownlow, a man driven by society to live a tangential life whose creativity dries up with his repressed feelings, while Eleanor Bron is both amusing and touching as the sherry-tippling, Sachertorte-making Ellie who is afraid of the police. And Harvey Allpress (alternating with two other boy actors in this run) gives an impressively mature performance to show the growing pains of Holly.
Gray was a master of dissecting the neuroses of the English educated middle-class and this plays subtle exposure of repressed emotions stirring beneath the still surface of polite manners is on a par with Rattigans best work.