Gray’s elegy draws the town

There was an unusually high class turn out for the opening of Simon Gray’s The Last Cigarette (adapted from his autobiographies by the author himself and Hugh Whitemore) at the Trafalgar Studios last night.

Barry Humphries breezed in with Maurice Saatchi and Josephine Hart, producers Robert Fox and Michael White renewed old friendship (Robert started in Michael’s office), Anne “Weakest Link” Robinson basked in her own recognition factor, Herbie Kretzmer beamed sartorially, and Prospect editor David Goodhart proudly showed off a beautiful daughter.

And just how highly rated Gray was by his fellow writers was evident in the presence of novelists David Lodge, Lynne Truss and Nigel Williams, brooding poet Tony Harrison, and the bitter bard of Bristol, Peter Nichols, who was chatting (and even, shock horror, smiling) with Anna Carteret and her director husband Christopher Morahan.

David Bradley — whom I saw in Stratford at the weekend being greeted by the RSC chairman Christopher Bland with the crass remark, “I last saw you acting Michael Gambon off the stage” — told me he’d not been at the Whitehall Theatre (as the Trafalgar was more happily known until recently) since 1952, when he saw Seagulls Over Sorrento, or something very like it.

Bradley is an actors’ actor, and of course had no more acted Gambon off the stage in No Man’s Land than Paul Scholes outplays Wayne Rooney each week at Manchester United. He was taking a break from early rehearsals for the next Mike Leigh film, in which he’ll appear alongside Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville.

Other first night guests — the Last Gasper is produced from Chichester by Howard Panter (suitably enough) and Bill Kenwright, whose big cheesy grin has got even bigger and cheesier since Everton reached the F A Cup Final — included Jenny Seagrove, Linda Marlowe, Richard O’Brien (as thin as a pipe cleaner these days) and of course the only agent since Peggy Ramsay to be name-checked on the stage by one of her own clients, Judy Daish.

We had quite a lot of mobile phone action in the stalls. Maurice Saatchi’s went off, and so did bibulous diarist John McEntee’s — twice! At least John only received one call in each half, and I certainly sympathised as a)it too easily happens if you’re not concentrating and b) you have to be permanently available for work as a freelance, which John now is.

Richard Eyre’s production has certainly tightened up since March in Chichester and elements of it such as Jon Driscoll’s back projections and George Fenton’s ominous music have come into sharper focus in the Trafalgar.

But, boy, those seats and vertiginous stairs. It’s a punishingly uncomfortable theatre. In between turning his phone off and greeting friends, ginger-dyed Maurice Saatchi could hardly sit still in his squeaky seat.

And Herbie Kretzmer and Michael White, both of them reliant on walking sticks (Herbie’s extremely old, Michael’s had a severe stroke), tottered precariously to their places like novices on the north face of the Eiger.    

The three Grays on stage — should they be the three graces? — have zipped up their baton passing no end, and the performance is now a sort of organic ping pong game, full of cross court passes, sliced back-hands and well sustained rallies.

Felicity Kendal gets most laughs as the Barbadian nurse — in a thick Jamaican accent that should irritate the politically correct police, hooray — who removes the catheter from Gray’s penis while plugging her own novel, and Nicholas Le Prevost has perfected his grinning chipmunk act — all teeth and glasses — while bearing bad news with a guffaw.

But the star of the show is undoubtedly Jasper Britton, whose whiplash comic style and acid delivery most accurately conjures the spirit of Simon Gray, who would have ruefully delighted in the celebrity status his peers, friends and colleagues accorded him in their milling merriment last night.

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