Simon Gray’s play is about the damage wrought by the passing of time: the compromises made, the ideals abandoned. Spanning almost two decades, from the late 1960s to the mid 80s, it charts the fortunes of a group of friends who meet at Cambridge and set up a literary magazine together, called The Common Pursuit after a collection of essays by FR Leavis.
In terms of narrative, it’s fairly familiar stuff. We’ve been here many times before. When we first see these men at the start, they are energetic young students, brimming with potential and confidence, eager to make their mark on the world. But as the years pass, the characters lose sight of the dreams of their younger, brighter selves.
Gray’s play does not bludgeon its audience with these ideas, it is subtler than that; melancholic and contemplative rather than overtly tragic. Peter, the talented historian, who amusingly charges round campus chanting the theme to the Lone Ranger, becomes a man more concerned with his latest hasty sexual conquest than with the quality of his work. The waspish and stand-offish poet Humphrey is never able to fully capitalise on his early flashes of brilliance. Stuart, the editor, is struggling to uphold the magazine’s intellectual standards, while his personal life slips out of his grasp. The endearingly nerdy Nick takes a hack job at the BBC with a man he loathes and seems to be in the process of smoking himself into an early grave.
Written in 1984, the play has not aged awfully well. The writing is astute but there is something rather chilly about it, a certain distance that makes it difficult to care awfully about what happens to these men. When one of them dies in a later scene, there’s an initial frisson of surprise but beyond that the emotional impact is minimal. This is partly due to Fiona Laird’s rather blunt production and the fact that the cast don’t really convince as students in the earlier scenes, they’re too old for one thing, and only really look at home in their roles as play shifts forwards in time.
That said, James Dreyfus is excellent as Humphrey, a man whose perfectionism ends up hampering him. He always seems to position himself a little away from the others, never allowing himself to be part of the group; he is quick to criticise their faults, but, you suspect, he is just as harsh, if not harsher, on himself: it’s an understated but very effective performance. Robert Portal, as Stuart, provides a solid, necessary centre to the play, and his scenes with Ben Caplan’s Martin, the most business-minded of the group and the magazine’s publisher, are by far the most satisfying.
Nigel Harman’s Peter and Reece Shearsmith’s Nick fare less well. There is a far broader quality to their performances, in part due to the fact that their characters are the least rounded, but some of Shearsmith’s tics and mannerisms do contain shades of the League of Gentlemen, more than a splash of caricature. Mary Stockwell does what she can as Marigold, the only woman in this rather male world, but her part is very underwritten and we learn nothing about what drives her.
The play contains a good number of subtly humorous moments, and the epilogue a brief flashback to their student days has a certain unavoidable poignancy, but the production doesn’t deliver as much as it could. There is something lacking, some sense of heart; like the characters it portrays, it doesn’t quite fulfil its potential.