This revival of Simon Gray’s 1975 comedy begins in silence, with publisher Simon Hench stalking smoothly around his living room, keen to settle down with a new recording of Parsifal he has just purchased. This small task proves to be more difficult than expected; a series of visitors – brother, friend, lodger, wife – keep interrupting him, cluttering his tasteful, tidy little world with the mess of their lives. Mess being something Simon doesn’t care for; neither is life for that matter, not in any real, human sense.
Directed by Simon Curtis, this slick but unchallenging revival sees Richard E Grant take the role of Simon and there’s something about his long-limbed coolness that is inherently suitable to the part. He looks very at home in his white-walled, book-lined minimal living room, a set amusingly at odds with the pink and rickety Criterion theatre that houses it.
The biggest pleasure of the production comes, however, from a paunchy and dishevelled Anthony Head (yes, he from Buffy and the Gold Blend ads) as Simon’s friend Jeff. Playing a permanently drunken writer in the throes of an affair with his ex-wife, Head injects considerable charm into an unappealing character and displays spot-on comic timing. His presence elevates every scene hes in.
David Bamber is equally compelling as Bernard Wood (nee Wanker Strapley) an old school acquaintance of Simon’s. Bamber excels at rodenty pathos and his arrival brings a darker quality to proceedings. He also raises issues about Simon’s sexuality that are never really developed (or perhaps this is just a public school thing and therefore a non-issue.) Peter Wight is similarly strong as Simon’s bumbling teacher brother and both Amanda Ryan and Amanda Drew do what they can with the far less well-written female roles.
Next to all these people, a certain disconnectedness is obviously necessary from Simon, a man who keeps everything well below the surface. But Grant’s performance is so switched off as to border on the catatonic. Even when hard realities threaten to puncture his carefully cultivated bubble, he barely flinches. He’s more than just self-absorbed and distant, he’s a non-person – a blank in a blue shirt. It’s incredibly difficult to engage with a character who barely displays any recognisable emotion; just a sliver of something going on beneath his skin would have been enough to make this performance work, but Grant never obliges.
In many ways Gray’s play has dated well, and only a pointlessly annoying lodger (played by Liam Garrigan) flags up its particular vintage. But despite some shining dialogue Otherwise Engaged remains a case of literary London dissecting itself and one questions the need for it to have been given such a starry revival in a major West End venue. Despite the odd small shock, this is something of a centreless elitist sitcom, albeit one permeated by a necessary air of desperation.
In the end, it’s the combined talents of Anthony Head, David Bamber and Peter Wight that ensure this is, for the most, part an amusing and entertaining experience. But as a piece of theatre it only asks questions it knows the answer to; its sheer conventionality leaves you cold.