Just realised that I promised elsewhere that I was going to review Otherwise Engaged, a revival of the 1975 Simon Gray play, starring Richard E Grant and Anthony Head. I’ve been holding off on this one, much as I’ve held off reviewing Broken Flowers, on the general grounds that I didn’t know what to make of it. There are spoilers in it, so look away now if you don’t want to know what happens.
It starts off amusingly enough. Grant plays a 40-something publisher, who’s trying to get some peace and quiet while his wife’s away on a business trip. However, his brother, upstairs lodger and best friend (Head) all seem intent on distracting him from his relaxation with their intricate neuroses and psychoses. And so the play develops, as we watch Grant feign interest in the various stories they present him with. He’d still prefer to listen to Wagner instead.
Grant is excellent, playing this disinterested man both sympathetically and realistically. He’s helped by some spot-on dialogue from Gray, who captures with ease the ex-Oxbridge world Grant inhabits: when told that a man went to Cambridge, he immediately asks which college, rather than focusing on the more important matters at hand. The humour will also ring true to audience members in the publishing game: Grant visibly parses each sentence like a sub, checking it for its true meaning, constantly asking for clarification of the subject and object of statements. Head is equally good, giving surprising charm to his character, a misogynistic, philandering alcoholic journalist who still loves his ex-wife and whose opinions on Australians (“They work too hard and lower the going rates”) will ring equally true to lazy journalists everywhere.
Despite Mark Lawson’s comments in the programme, it’s not difficult to cope with the mid-70s’ references, although the morality of the characters in the play does seem light years away from that of today (if you’ve ever been to Maidstone, you’ll know it’s not that far away in certain parts of the country though).
What is difficult is the second act. The humour of the first part is mostly absent as we learn that the uninvolved but seemingly honourable Grant, who has already turned down the advances of Head’s girlfriend, has been having a string of affairs. Things slowly descend into misery as Grant is forced to become involved in his own life and discovers that his failure to care enough about it has effectively ruined it. He even learns that he wasn’t involved enough to realise that it was Head who introduced him to his beloved Wagner.
The play fades out on Head and a crying Grant listening to Parsifal. Ultimately, Grant’s character now has to decide whether to re-involve himself and try to win back his wife who has been cheating on him. But we’re left unsure if the message is that Grant should have stayed disinterested and not probed into his life to see what had become of it, or whether he shouldn’t have backed away from it in the first place.
If it’s an entertaining night out at the theatre that you want, then Otherwise Engaged will give you that. But if you’re after something with a little more bite (given Head’s presence in the cast, I had to get one Buffy reference in there, didn’t I?), Otherwise Engaged will leave you a little dissatisfied.