Trafalgar Studios, London – until 28 October 2017
Guest reviewer: Franco Milazzo
Are there laughs after death? Award-winning playwright and librettist Stephen Clark’s comedy-drama Le Grand Mort makes its world debut almost a year after the celebrated writer died and serves as a posthumous poser to what could have been had Clark not shuffled off the mortal coil at the age of 55.
As the urbane, witty and sophisticated Michael, Julian Clary plays against type. Here is a character a world away from the high camp drag alter ego that decades ago wore outfits louder than an elephant being castrated without anaesthetic, peddled cheap gags that could be sold wholesale in Poundland and went on to present epochal works like TV show Has Anyone Seen My Pussy? Opposite him is James Nelson-Joyce which is quite a posh name for someone so adept, as he is here, at playing lads who are sandpaper-rough at the edges.
We first meet Michael as he makes pasta alla puttanesca seemingly only because of the dish’s name. The first third of the show is taken up with him verbally dancing and physically prancing around the kitchen, slicing, dicing and mincing as he goes. A micron beneath the faux cynicism he wears like an evening suit, he casually oozes violent sexual urges and repression as he recounts a number of historical tales ranging from the desecration of Tutankhamun’s tomb to the lopping off of Rasputin’s penis to the time “erect camera lenses” came to “penetrate” a dead Diana.
The middle-third flips and flops back and forth in time as we discover that Michael is cooking for Tim, a younger man who chatted him up in a pub earlier that day. Both on that occasion and later in the evening, there’s a tense cat-and-mouse played out between the two with the kind of psychological exploration to keep any Freudians utterly priapic. There’s sharp knives and full body nudity aplenty before the end and those of a nervous disposition may want to find a sofa to hide behind.
By far the play’s worst crime is in its unoriginal writing and cheap attempts at shock and horror. A well-spoken and erudite white-collar worker-cum-serial killer who loves cooking and red wine as much as he does psychodrama, Michael is a Hannibal Lecter clone in all but name. Clark’s script tries to introduce some serious topics here and there – not least the merry dance that sex and mortality play throughout life – but he walks us down well-worn paths like wordplay between the title and Michael’s frequent allusions to le petit mort (“the little death”, or orgasm); similarly, the historical examples employed are also fairly well-known.
Clary does well with the powerful dialogue but there’s a feeling that a more experienced or confident actor could have better enunciated Michael’s darkest desires; in the final third, even when he picks up a knife and starts brandishing his chopper at Tim (not like that), the comedian often comes across as only slightly more menacing than a stick of fresh celery.
In contrast, Nelson-Joyce is superbly convincing as the manipulative Tim who teases and taunts Michael mercilessly. If anything, the script and marketing does him a grave disservice: even though Le Grand Mort’s ending sees him brandishing his chopper (exactly like that) and the show poster poses him half-naked opposite a clothed Clary, there’s far more to this actor than his physicality. His intense expression of a man who enjoys the hunt as much as the kill is a thrill ride and the high point of a play which, sadly, doesn’t do Clark or his career justice.