Review of Life Support in The Independent

You would surely run out of fingers if you were to count the number of occasions that Alan Bates has taken the lead in a Simon Gray play. In the moving, astute, often funny Life Support at the Aldwych, the actor does this author especially proud – not least because, for some of the time, he has to perform a solo double-act. Keeping vigil at the bedside of his wife – who is in a persistent vegetative state as the result of a bee sting – the Bates character, Jeff Golding, Conducts imaginary marital conversations in which he plays both parts. He’ll try anything which might jog her back into consciousness.

Bates has always excelled at presenting the barbed waggishness and quizzical, toying superiority that are a cover, in some people, for lacerating despair and self-dislike. Here, he superbly suggests a man struggling to master overwhelming grief, remorse, rage and tenderness with a kind of edged, floundering flippancy.

Jeff is a fraudulent travel writer who has made a mint out of portraying himself as the lovable accident-prone comic butt in the safety of his hotel suite. That joke has now, however, hideously backfired: his wife’s condition is the direct result of the one occasion in his life when he actually behaved like his phoney prose persona. It in no way eases his guilt that the accident happened during a snarling alcoholic row. Perhaps the bee was his poison-bearing proxy. “Everything glowed with a gleam. Yet we were looking away!” At one point Jeff quotes these lines of Thomas Hardy, acutest of poets about the repinings of widowerhood. In one sense, Gray’s play intimates, Hardy had it easy. At least his first wife was incontrovertibly dead, whereas, given the indeterminacy of the circumstances, Jeff has the privations of bereavement without the emotional privileges, and suffers the anguish of feeling that his love is insufficient to call his wife back to life. In one simple but powerfully affecting touch, Georgina Hale (excellent as the bed-bound spouse) is able, at moments, to take over the lines of dialogue playing in Jeff’s head. But it’s significant – perhaps a mark of his emotional honesty – that he can only give her this free lease of life when steadfastly looking away and pretending to read the paper. When he turns, she’s a vegetable once again.

One of the paradoxes of Jeff’s predicament is brought home in the defiantly tasteless (and slightly contrived-seeming) episode in which he calls in his mistress and literary agent (Carole Nimmons) to discuss their affair in front of his comatose spouse in the hope of reviving her. After all, he declares, he has nothing to lose. To the riposte that this ruse might lose him his marriage, he replies, “If there’s still a marriage to lose, I’m a lucky man, aren’t I?”

Harold Pinter’s meticulous and absorbing production boasts fine performances from Nickolas Grace as Jeff’s outrageous, sponging, gay actor brother and from Frank McCusker as a volubly caring, sharing doctor, whose interest in Jeff’s case turns out to be more professionally self-interested than is seemly. There are some excellent jokes. (It was love at first sight for the brother when a black youth held a knife to his stomach: “It takes most couples years to get to that point,” comments Jeff.) At Tuesday’s first night, a mobile phone went off in the stalls during one of the emotional climaxes. It says a lot for the power of Alan Bates’s performance that the moment was far from ruined.

Sunday Telegraph Review of Life Support at the Aldwych Theatre,

10 August 1997

John Gross

Simon Gray’s new play, buy xanax us pharmacy Life Support, at the Aldwych Theatre, offers us a double vision. Life doesn’t stop being absurd because it is tragic. It doesn’t stop being tragic because it is absurd.

The hero, Jeff, is a successful author who writes humorous books about his supposed misadventures (generally made up in the safety of his hotel-room) in faraway places: “Bananas in Borneo”, “A Chump in China”. If he wrote an account of his most recent expedition, it would probably be called “A Bee Sting in Guadeloupe”. It would describe an incident at least as bizarre as anything in his previous work – only this time it would be true.

For once his wife, Gwen, accompanied him on a trip. For once he ventured into the dangerous world beyond his hotel. Gwen was stung by a bee; through an understandable misunderstanding, he interfered with the first aid which might have saved her. Now she lies in a hospital bedroom in London, sunk in a coma – “persistent vegetative state”. He is constantly at her bedside: guilty, anguished, sometimes angry, desperate to bring her back to life.

His situation sounds about as stark and simple as you could well imagine, but grotesque complications soon set in. There is a godlike figure in charge of the cast, Mr Rolls. Like God, he never appears; instead, his assistant, a cheerful young Irishman called Pat, encourages Jeff to play the supportive spouse. Jeff conducts conversations with Gwen, mimicking her replies.

Sometimes she appears (in his fantasy, one assumes) to regain consciousness and answer back. It becomes clear that their marriage has had abundant ups and downs – the downs mostly fuelled by Jeff’s infidelities and Gwen’s alcohol intake. That doesn’t make his love for her any less genuine or, under current circumstances, any less painful.

Jeff also enlists such help as he can find. His brother Jack, an unsuccessful actor, comes round to sponge off him and is forced to direct his requests for a loan to Gwen. His literary agent, Julia, comes round with some contracts to sign: instead he gets her to tell Gwen about the affair they have had, in the hope that it will trigger a reaction.

Nothing works. The vegetative state persists. Affable, pot-smoking, chess playing Dr Pat turns out to have his own agenda. By the end, we wonder whether (or how long) Jeff is going to be able to resist the invitation to pull the plug.

The play is a sombre one. Jeff is trapped. As long as there is life, and hope, he can’t even grieve properly for Gwen – or rather, he suffers from that deadly state which Coleridge described as “a grief without a pang”.

The play is also an entertaining one. It is full of witty lines, ingenious fancies, neatly engineered double-takes. And though it seems unfair to complain, since we wouldn’t really want Simon Gray to expose us to too much dull misery, there are times when we begin to feel that the jokes have become unduly at odds with the tragic central theme.

The disparity is largely conjured away, however, by Alan Bates’s performance as Jeff. His words are often flip and cynical – rightly so, since he is a man who is still honest enough to recognise the extent of his own phoniness. But his gestures and expressions superbly convey the depths of pain underneath.

There are fine supporting performances – from Nickolas Grace as Jack and Frank McCusker as Pat: from Georgina Hale, a haunting Gwen, and Carole Nimmons looking exactly like a literary agent as Julia. Harold Pinter’s direction aims for clarity, with entire success. It is an absorbing evening, and an intelligent one.