Oh, what a Gray day

If there had been any lights on Shaftesbury Avenue last night, they surely would have been lowered in honour of Simon Gray, who died yesterday aged 71 of lung cancer.

Instead, three dark houses — the Lyric awaiting a flamenco show, the Gielgud bracing itself blankly for Six Characters from Chichester and the Apollo proclaiming a stage version of the film Rain Man — quietly attested the passing of the civilised contemporary well-made play in the West End.

To be fair, Gray’s heyday was a long time ago, in the mid 1970s, when Alan Bates first in Butley and then in Otherwise Engaged played archetypal Gray characters wrestling with their finer feelings and libidos in a world of mixed emotions cauterised by wit.

The grimness of Shaftesbury Avenue sums it all up, really. The place is supposed to be the epicentre of the greatest theatre business in the world and it looks like a complete dump.

Half the road is dug up. The pavements are unattractive. The lighting is poor and unimaginative. The overspill from Leicester Square is a heaving mass of overweight, unlovely tourists none of whom look as though they are going to the theatre; you simply don’t get that pre-show buzz on the sidewalk that you get in New York.

I think most leading dramatists feel alienated from this outward manifestation of their own entertainment culture, and none more so than Simon Gray. His hilarious diaries breathed disaffection and loathing on every page and you can’t imagine anyone you pass on the pavement having the slightest interest in the plays that he wrote.

I was overwhelmed with these sentiments as I sat in a Chinese restaurant on the Avenue before going to see the grotesquely overrated animated film Wall-E, which spoils its bleak post-apocalyptic vision of an American universe consumed by its own consumerism in a depressing narrative twist suggesting that the same old society of fat and blobby burger munchers is about to repopulate the planet: Shaftesbury Avenue will be reborn in all its gruesome glory!   

While nibbling on our delicious dim sum in the early evening, a friend text-messaged us the news of Gray’s passing, and I felt unaccountably sad. I never met or interviewed the man — I didn’t think I’d like him all that much — but he looked in reasonably good shape at the first night of That Face at the Duke of York’s exactly three months ago, big and burly, dressed in white shirt and white trousers.

He had been part of my life for four decades, ever since my parents made the curious decision to take my brother and me on a birthday treat to see a play of his called Dutch Uncle (at the Aldwych) which featured Warren Mitchell, of all people, in drag.

It wasn’t very good, but it was very different, and the cast also included Frances de la Tour, who promptly became my favourite actress in the whole world and has not budged from that status too much over the years.

Dominic Dromgoole once dubbed Gray the poet laureate of dyspepsia. He had a great gift for quarrelling. James Fenton was wonderfully rude about his work during his three year stint as drama critic on The Sunday Times, and when he (Fenton) published his collected reviews, Gray exacted rollicking revenge, starting with an analysis of Fenton’s mug shot on the dust jacket as resembling that of a banged-up prisoner doomed to his own grim solitude for ever, and quite right too.  

There’s a wonderful casual acidity about the way he looks at the world. He’s like Alan Bennett but without the curlicues and soft edges. Nothing much pleases him, except the company of friends and perhaps the odd game of cricket, and he backs off from forming too many moral conclusions.

In The Smoking Diaries, the penultimate of his published books and (I must heretically confess) the least entertaining of them, the heroic puffer declares: “The moral is: you can learn nothing from experience, at least in my experience.”  

At his best, his prose has a snake-like supple quality, charged, as John Osborne once said, with terrific ill-temper. I can open my favourite of his books, An Unnatural Pursuit, or How’s That for Telling ‘Em, Fat Lady? at any page and gain instant pleasure.
The books are rich in self-lacerating paranoia, their colourful wooziness snapped into elegiac rigour by the mastery of style and faultless musical pitch of his writing. Au fond, I much prefer the books to the plays, and we may come to remember Simon Gray as a great writer and a fairly good playwright. 

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