Felicity Kendal, Nicholas Le Prevost and Jasper Britton were full of praise and admiration for writer Simon Gray following the press night of The Last Cigarette.
“One does meet brave people,” said Le Prevost, who plays Simon 2 in the adapted memoirs of Gray, who battled lung cancer before dying last year, “men and women who have this heroic sort of reckless attitude to their own mortality, never sacrificing themselves to sentiment or being sorry for themselves. He was a truly brave man, a clever, brave man.”
The Last Cigarette, which premiered at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre earlier this year before transferring to the Trafalgar Studio 1, shares the life story of Gray, from his childhood and father’s adultery to his fight against cancer. Yet no matter how bad the situation, it is always faced with wit and humour.
For the cast, who each play the writer, and director Richard Eyre, the project presented a particular emotional hurdle. Each of them had worked with Gray in the course of their careers, and now had to recreate him on stage.
Britton explained: “There was a sort of bleakness about the whole atmosphere at the beginning of rehearsals. We rehearsed in this church, freezing cold, and Victoria (Gray’s widow) was there on the first day. It was difficult. I was sitting next to her thinking ‘Bloody hell this is hard, we’re having to do scenes about Simon considering killing himself in the sea off Crete while she’s reading a book in the café, and she’s right there.’ That was very difficult. We were constantly summoning up, or trying to summon up, the spirit and soul and mind of a man who isn’t around any more. It’s such a great loss. Inevitably it’s going to be emotionally a bit of a challenge, and it still is.
“I was thinking during the second half tonight, it’s a pretty good tribute to him, but if it were me, I’d have a trilogy and we’d do all three parts every day and it would be every bloody detail of every bloody thing. He was such an extraordinary man, brave man, a man devoid of ego, a real man of the theatre.”
Kendal, who described the opening night as “like launching a ship”, added that it was “especially wonderful to have an opening night [in London]. He hoped to be here; he’s not here, but it’s a celebration of his work so it’s particularly important, to me anyway.”