Review – The Late Middle Classes, Donmar Warehouse

Tuesday 1 June 2010

In the unlikely event that they ever get around to writing their play the Whingers will be sure to follow the classic advice to “write about what you know”. This will engender a refreshingly brief night at the theatre.

In The Late Middle Classes Simon Gray has written about what he knows. The late Mr Gray knew more than we ever will and hence has much more to say. And so it was heavy hearts all round when the Whingers found a slip in their Donmar programmes imparting the news that “The performance lasts approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes including an interval” in contradiction of the programme which admits to a mere “2 hours”. How did they get it so wrong?

While the Whingers’ dramatic opus might feature Andrew’s early thespian successes* (we promised it would be short, didn’t we?) or Phil’s nascent years fannying around in the hay ricks of Wiltshire, Gray’s childhood is more interesting, despite growing up on Hayling Island. Yes, Hayling Island! When did you last see a play set there?

Gray draws heavily on his early years just after the Second World War as a perplexed young adolescent with an emotionally manipulative mother, an uptight pathologist father and a talent for piano nurtured by his teacher Mr Brownlow (Robert Glenister); where autobiography gives way to dramatic licence isn’t clear.

But what took the Whingers by surprise was how much they lapped up David Leveaux‘s nuanced production. This despite an opening scene which was almost Pinteresque in its elusiveness, long pauses and slow delivery before slipping back to the 1950s where it seemed that Terrence Rattigan or Coward had taken over. The boy’s mother Celia (Helen McCrory) bounces on in a eye-watering, Daz-white tennis outfit, talking about characters like Bunty and pronouncing “piano” as a most wonderfully strangled middle class confection, “pee-AH-no”.

How things pepped up. McCrory’s Celia is terrific: needy, frustrated, bored. manipulative, irritating and with a rather cruel line in humour which extends to feigning death in front of her son. Despite this and her determination for her son to earn a scholarship so that they can leave the island she is  never actually unlikeable and is frequently supremely funny. McCrory is superb, shifting the mood magnificently to accommodate the more serious matters in the second act.

As the father Peter Sullivan delivers a totally convincing performance of post-war exhaustion and buttoned-up repression. He is laugh-out-loud hilarious when he’s forced by his wife to explain the facts of life to their son, a chat which turn out to be all preamble to a single word before concluding. “I wish my father had talked to me like I’m talking to you now.”

We think that the boy, Holly, was played by Laurence Belcher the night we were in (There are three alternating the role. This isn’t The Broadway where they can shove them on stage 8 shows a week like 11-year-old Adam Riegler‘s Pugsley in The Addams Family). This is a massive and key role for a young boy to handle and he managed it absurdly well.

Glenister plays the younger and especially the trickier older version of his piano teacher most effectively and both he and Eleanor Bron as his dotty, sherry-quaffing mother manage mittel-European accents, sadly, without descending into camp.

And most excitingly of all we can announce yet another theatrical trend for twenty-ten! For this was the second time in just over a week that an Austrian cake had not only made an appearance but had been consumed Live On Stage.

Yes, sachertorte at the Donmar! Last week the only paradise to be found at the Menier was the gugelhupf. The Whingers now eagerly await sampling Sir Nicholas’ marmorgugelhupf at the National or perhaps Mr Spacey tempting us with a chunk of his zwetschkekuchen at the Old Vic.

The set features some fantastic period furniture including an armchair which Andrew coveted so much that he is going to put Earlham Street under permanent surveillance in case it gets left unattended for even a moment after the run. There are also lace doilies. And the piano (there is a great deal of piano playing involved) plays itself while the actors attempt – mostly unsuccessfully – to place their fingers on the keys that move.

So nothing to whinge about then? Phil liked the wallpapered back wall (designer Mike Britton) where even the pictures, door frames and mirror are covered in an appropriately suburban floral print but is completely over the overdone device of lighting the edges of the stage. It feels as if every Donmar production does this, not to mention Holding the Man and last week’s The Fantasticks to name but two.

But what of the length? Well, it didn’t actually run 2 hours 45 minutes after all, but just over 2 hours 30 minutes. We suspect this may be a clever ploy by Donmar supremo Grandage to buck the National’s trend of printing shorter running times than the actual performance, instead doing it the other way around knowing that the Whingers will no doubt leave in a much happier frame of mind. We’re so easily taken in: bizarrely his cunning ploy worked. Even so, 2 hours 30 seems quite a long time for a play which seems to be about people’s inability to talk.

Anyway, the Donmar’s blurb calls it a “funny, melancholic and captivating play” and it is all of these things so happily for the long-suffering clerk at the Trading Standards Office the Whingers will not be getting in touch for a change.


Rating score 4-5 full-bodied


* Yes, Andrew had found cuttings of his early press reviews over the weekend. If it hadn’t been a Bank Holiday Monday with pubs calling “last orders” peculiarly early, it could have been a very long night for Phil indeed.

7 Responses to “Review – The Late Middle Classes, Donmar Warehouse”

  1. JohnnyFox Says:

    Sounds great, but have to wait for a transfer.

    Can we please wage a campaign against the Donmar’s perfidious refusal to post its available seats on the website and sell from the top of the pile?

  2. Griff Says:

    A terrific show, except that at times those of us sitting up in the Gods couldn’t hear a word Peter Sullivan was saying. I spoke to the people sitting near me and they all had the same complaint. (All the other performers were perfectly audible.)

  3. Boz Says:

    Saw this last night and your review is bang on the money, although lacks any mention of the vast quantities of gin knocked back by the characters. by my estimation, the excellent Ms McCrory was serving at the very least triple measures.

    My first time at the Donmar. Was very excited.

  4. Ian Jones Says:

    My second visit to the Donmar, I enjoyed the Chalk Garden.
    Enjoyed this play although would have enjoyed
    it a lot more if I had been able to hear Peter Sullivan playing the part of Charles.
    I was sitting in Row C of the circle. stage
    left from the actors viewpoint. I really had to strain and lean forward to hear him.
    I think twenty per cent of what he said was lost. I think he must have been to the Marlon Brando school of acting as he just mumbled. I felt like shouting speak up!

  5. Rae Coates Says:

    If actor are so bad mannered as to be inaudable,just shout out speak up. They should soon get the picture.
    When will these “method” people learn,its not about whether they feel it, its about whether the audience does.
    Simplistic I know but——

  6. Diana Says:

    Well we complained in the interval about the lack of Peter Sullivan’s audibility and we were only in the 2nd row Stalls – people in the Circle left early as they just could not hear him! Really found this quite mystifying in a theatre this small, why?

    I thought he might have had a cold but obviously not if others had the same problem?

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