Three actors – dressed the same, using the same mannerisms – playing one man, writer Simon Gray, recounting his life and struggle against lung cancer. On paper, it is an odd concept.
On stage, with each performer given their own identically decorated desk and chair, it is no less challenging as an idea, but within five minutes of interlinked, overlapping dialogue, the high concept no longer matters, what matters is the tale of one man’s life.
The construct was created by playwright Hugh Whitemore to convince Gray his memoirs could be adapted for the theatre. With three Simon Grays on stage, the anecdotes and tales become conversational, the Simons questioning and supporting each others’ memories, both providing clarity and adding doubt. It also offers the opportunity for the performers, Jasper Britton, Nicholas Le Prevost and Felicity Kendal, to step into the shoes of those people so vital in Gray’s memories, playing roles within the playwright’s mind.
Smoking, as the title might suggest, lies at the heart of the piece, as it did at the heart of Gray’s life. The performers ritually light up as one throughout the show. While the cigarettes led to all manner of turmoil and tragedy in Gray’s life, there is very little animosity to them in his attitude. Instead they are treated with love and passion; a stark contrast to the vivid, haunting image created of the cancer that plagued his latter years.
Richard Eyre’s production brings a swift, slick autobiography of the playwright to audiences, the performers effortlessly interlinking lines, at once the same and different. Kendal, in particular, has adapted to life as a male with aplomb, adding a swagger to her stride and a wide-legged boldness to her stance. Rob Howell’s simple staging uses projection at the rear of the stage to set the scenes, the action taking place simultaneously in the writer’s study and the setting of his memory.
While the play – as anyone who has read the memoirs on which it is based will know – covers painful subjects including Gray’s father’s affair, his cringe-inducing introduction to sexual liaisons and his fight against cancer, it is all tackled with a wit and temper that brings more smiles and laughter than frowns and sorrow. His imagined personification of cancer, however, might stay with me forever for very different reasons.