‘Engage’ has become one of those infuriating terms one frequently finds in job adverts, or bandied about incessantly by politicians. It’s over-used to the extent that it’s almost become meaningless and trite. In terms of society, the sad fact is that most people have become totally ‘disengaged’. For example, turn-outs at general elections continue to plummet, and we’re soon likely to face the situation where the majority of people will be living alone – disengaging themselves from the company of others. So, on the face of it at least, Simon Gray’s 1975 play appears to have renewed relevance.
‘Otherwise Engaged’ takes place in the living room of the Henchs’ house in Islington. The setting is rather important because Islington is something of a fashionable oddity in the London housing market, where the very rich live out their wine-and-dine existence in neighbourly ignorance of the very poor who often live in the same house or street. The home of Tony Blair before he became Prime Minister, Islington’s proximity to the West End as well as the City, together with its copious number of trendy bars, restaurants and over-priced antique shops, made it a prime location for the up-and-coming in the 1970s to beech themselves at a reasonable price (but no longer the case, given the spiralling house prices of late).
It’s a Saturday morning in the Summer of 1975, and successful publisher, Simon Hench, is settling down to indulge himself by listening to his favourite recording of Parsifal by Wagner. His tranquillity is about to be shattered by a succession of visitors.
First up is the student lodger who lives in the upstairs flat - charged the unreasonably decent rent of just £2 a week - who needs to borrow some readies to take out his new girlfriend. Next comes his brother, Stephen, who’s worried about his recent interview for the post of assistant headmaster. Then Jeff, an old school chum, pitches up and quickly gets drunk on Hench’s whiskey, before his current girlfriend arrives with a cock and bull story about Jeff’s ex-wife attempting suicide. In reality, Davina is after a publishing deal with Simon, but her attempts to seduce him meet with rejection, though she walks away with the publishing offer she’s desperate to obtain. Next on the agenda is Wood, who went to the same school as Hench, and whose girlfriend has gone missing after visiting Hench about a job. Finally, Hench’s wife returns and we learn that she’s been having an affair which Hench has been aware of all along, but has been happy to ignore.
First produced in 1975, Simon Gray’s award-winning comedy is undoubtedly sharp, witty and cleverly written. In effect, it’s a study in emotional indifference, but it’s also about those who are attracted to people like Simon Hench – the play’s title is an ambiguous one describing not only the central character but also those who are attracted to him. But Gray doesn’t convince me that Hench or his ilk are worth caring about, except in so far as they weald power which impacts on the rest of us in society. And that may well be the real point of the play. It’s Hench’s indifferent influence which gives real cause for concern.
Richard E Grant in the lead as Simon, has approached the role in a rather mechanical, straight up-and-down kind of way. For much of the time he stands almost to attention, with hands in his pockets. Although this may be his version of describing how uninterested he is in the proceedings which others are roping him into, it ignores the subtlety of the role, leaving us with the impression of an uninteresting man who’s disinterested rather than an interesting man who’s uninterested. But he did change gear somewhat in the second half, during which the whole play moves into a more emotionally intense dimension. However, Grant continued to look disinterested during the curtain calls, or perhaps he was just exhausted given that he’s on-stage throughout the play. As for the other members of the cast, Anthony Head gave a highly enjoyable performance as the repellent Jeff, moving fluidly from obnoxious journalist to drunken, pathetic lecher. And he has some great lines, for example when he’s describing Australians as being ‘alright as dentists’. But Amanda Drew probably has the best and most revealing line when she says about Hench: “Your sanity is the kind which makes people go quietly mad around you”.
Simon Curtis’s production is competent and solid, without being riveting or compelling. Richard E Grant’s performance really doesn’t draw us in to the character, and we’re left with a ‘so what?’ feeling at the final curtain. But also the play itself has inevitably lost some of its ‘bite’ and novelty since it first appeared – we’ve all moved on after all. It’s not totally un-enjoyable, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to ‘engage’ with it again.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANBARD says, "Heavyhanded revival ." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Excellent revival thanks partly to the fascination of that ambiguity, partly to Gray’s refreshingly unsentimental humour." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Otherwise Engaged is a modern classic of English high comedy." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Entertaining, well-paced production...a pleasurable and rewarding evening" MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "what makes the play so fascinating is that you feel Gray is more than half in love with the vice he is attacking."