Presenting the Swindonian’s new occasional thread for bibliomaniacal board-treaders the Limelight Librarian will dip into the annals of the Limelight Library to offer his take on actorly autobiographies, mummer’s memoirs, dramaturgical diaries and other melodramatic miscellany.

‘Fat Chance’ (first published 1995 by Faber and Faber Ltd) isn’t so much a book as a writer conducting an autopsy on the failed production of his own play.

Back in 1995 playwright Simon Gray was suffering something of a dip in his fortunes. His physical and mental health was close to ruin thanks to decades of sustained high-end alcohol abuse. His finances were also in a parlous state thanks to a dodgy tax-avoidance scheme gone wrong and the ruinous cost of leaving his wife for his long-term mistress. And worst of all – as far as he was concerned – his work had fallen out of fashion. His plays were now considered “too middle-class” and too often based on “the lives and trials of educated intellectuals”. Gray was in real danger of drifting into irrelevance as a writer.

Luckily he had a play. A new play. A different play.

“Cell Mates” was based on the true story of Cold War double-agent George Blake and petty-criminal Sean Burke. The men became friends while serving time in Wormwood scrubs back in the late-1960’s. Bourke, outraged at the severity of Blake’s 42 year sentence, helped his cell mate to escape and absconded with him. Both men eventually went into exile in Moscow, but Bourke became homesick for his native Ireland and returned there to live out the rest of his days.

Gray managed to entice Rik Mayall and Stephen Fry, who had both appeared in a revival of one of his earlier plays, to star as Burke and Blake. A tour and a short run in the West End was agreed and, with the two actors’ presence guaranteed to attract a younger audience, Gray had the possibility of a fresh new hit on his hands.

What could go wrong?

Three nights into the play’s run Stephen Fry suffered a mental collapse, triggered by a bad review and his then-undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and fled to Belgium. His role was hastily recast, but the show never recovered from Fry’s departure and, thanks to the resultant bad press, closed after only three weeks.

In an attempt to rescue something – financially and creatively – from the ruins of the play, Simon Gray wrote ‘Fat Chance’.

It was clear from interviews at the time that Gray harboured a fair amount of resentment towards Fry after the show’s premature demise. However, in the book, the tone is more measured, almost resigned. He does erupt on occasion, but that’s usually in the aftermath of emotionally harrowing points in the narrative. Over the 126 pages he seems to genuinely want to try to work out what went wrong; where he went wrong.

Gray had never intended to direct “Cell Mates”. However, Mayall and Fry had enjoyed being directed by him in their previous collaboration and they made his role as director a condition of their involvement. He was physically and emotionally exhausted in the lead up – Gray spent a week in a drying out clinic the week before rehearsals began – and, perhaps as a result, the writer’s scapegoat of choice in the book is usually himself. He doesn’t exactly absolve his errant cast member, but, rightly or wrongly, Gray generally sees his choices – including casting Stephen Fry in the first place – as the rocks that the production eventually ran aground on.

That said the book isn’t just a dull, extended mea culpa. There’s always a self-excoriating wit to Gray’s prose. He’s not afraid of detailing his failing as a human being and as anyone who has read his ‘Smoking Diaries’ knows, he’s never funnier than when he’s giving himself an absolute metaphorical hiding.

The other main players in the book are displayed in in vivid strokes: The Stephen Fry of the book is erudite, likable and witty, but also fragile, unknowable and evasive. Meanwhile Simon Gray’s rendition of Rik Mayall is volatile, stubborn and brash, but also brave, dependable and honest.

In fact Mayall is the angel at the heart of the book. He is Gray’s champion throughout all his travails. The play would not have staggered on for as long as it did after Stephen Fry’s flight without his dedication and determination.

As Simon Gray says in the book’s coda:

“Will I ever again chance upon an actor with the gifts of Rik Mayall, the man who, for all his anxieties and vulnerabilities, was always there? Slim chance, I think. Slimmest of chances.”

Reviewed by Ben Thomas

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