Will Cell Mates revival lock away memories of Stephen Fry’s walkout for good?

Rik Mayall and Stephen Fry in Cell Mates in 1995. Photo: Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images Rik Mayall and Stephen Fry in Cell Mates in 1995. Photo: Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images
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Two decades after Cell Mates unravelled following the disappearance of its lead, Simon Gray’s play is being revived at Hampstead Theatre. Al Senter looks back at that fateful first production

Hampstead Theatre’s revival of Cell Mates this month is something of a theatrical curio. Many will be interested to see if the ill-fated play can prove itself two decades after a disastrous opening, and untangle its name from the star who fled early in the run, leaving the production in disarray.

Simon Gray’s play follows the relationship between petty criminal and writer Sean Bourke and master spy George Blake, which developed while they were locked up in Wormwood Scrubs, the prison from which Bourke subsequently helped Blake to escape.

News of the 1995 production starring Stephen Fry as Blake and Rik Mayall as his incarcerated companion had been met enthusiastically by the public. Ticket sales were strong enough to survive the mixed reviews the production had attracted. But then it all unravelled.

Wounded by vitriolic notices, Fry vanished just three shows into the run, leaving an apologetic note saying he had stage fright. Initial fears for his safety proved to be mistaken, as he was spotted in Bruges. Fry revealed later that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had talked of having a breakdown.

He eventually returned to London but not the stage of the Albery – now Noel Coward – Theatre. His co-star Mayall, meanwhile, was struggling gallantly on, first with the understudy then with Fry’s permanent replacement, Simon Ward.

A production that could have played in the West End for six months barely managed six weeks once the box office advance, created by Fry’s name on the billboard, inexorably faded away. Gray, who died in 2008, made some excoriating comments about Fry at the time, though he later regretted them.

The writer, who kept journals of each of his plays in production, released Fat Chance later the same year, telling the story from his point of view. It is a frank and often hilarious account of the unravelling of the show, in which the hapless Gray lurches from embarrassment to embarrassment.

Actor Sam Dastor was also a member of the Cell Mates cast, his third appearance in a play by Gray. He revealed that early casting ideas had centred on Albert Finney as Blake and Alan Bates, a frequent presence in Gray’s work, as Bourke.

Yet both actors found it hard to commit, and Gray’s patience with Bates was running low when he bumped into Fry in the Groucho Club.

Fry – alongside Mayall – had starred in a successful 1988 West End production of Gray’s The Common Pursuit. The show’s producer, Howard Panter, had argued that the bright young things of the alternative comedy scene could draw an audience. Gray had never heard of them but was quick to recognise their pulling power.

Gray insisted later that when he handed over a copy of the Cell Mates script to Fry, it was purely to gauge the performer’s opinion of the piece and did not, as was later claimed, constitute a firm offer.

But Fry was cast, almost by accident, which left Bates, who considered himself committed to the play, in a quandary. The two leads were supposed to be of a similar age, and Bates withdrew under a cloud.

Who then could they cast as Bourke? After the success of The Common Pursuit and with a high profile on stage and television, Mayall was an obvious choice. The chance of working again with Fry, whom he revered, no doubt added to the appeal of Cell Mates.

Geoffrey Streatfeild and Emmet Byrne in rehearsals for the Hampstead Theatre revival. Photo: Marc Brenner
Geoffrey Streatfeild and Emmet Byrne in rehearsals for the Hampstead Theatre revival. Photo: Marc Brenner

Christopher Morahan, the original choice to direct, then withdrew, leaving Gray to assume directorial duties, though Dastor doubted his fitness to do so.

Two decades after that notorious West End run, Cell Mates comes across as a strange subject for Gray to choose. The text doesn’t seem especially interested in spies or spying or the moral choice involved in serving or betraying one’s country.

“The germ of the play is a very interesting one,” Dastor argues. “But Simon’s plays didn’t always live up to the promise of their premise, and Cell Mates comes into this category. It’s a messy play; it hasn’t got any kind of focus to it.

“Simon was fascinated by the homoerotic – rather than homosexual – relationship. He felt that Bourke was deeply in love with Blake: he believed that both men really needed each other.” It is indeed a kind of love story, played out against the background of Blake and Bourke’s uneasy relationship with their jailers.

Dastor suggests that, from an early stage, Fry and the media were limbering up to do battle. Had certain parts of the Critics’ Circle decided that it was high time Britain’s favourite polymath was cut down to size?

Some of the reviewers took fright when it seemed that Fry had indeed had some kind of breakdown, caused by their deeply personal words, Dastor believes.

Accordingly, when the critics were invited to re-review the play following Ward’s arrival in the cast, Dastor argues that some who had originally praised Cell Mates now changed their tune. They repented of their early enthusiasm for the play and it became the party line that it was the shortcomings of Cell Mates that had driven Fry out of the production and not his own frailties.

“We limped on for six weeks but by the end it was torture. They could have cast Tom Cruise as Blake and still the people wouldn’t have come,” Dastor jokes.

“We also felt terribly abandoned by Simon, who’d gone off on holiday to Barbados. Rik worked extremely hard – as did Simon Ward – and didn’t give a bad performance. I liked Rik for the guts he showed. He’d come off the stage in floods of tears and into the arms of his agent.”

Gray was restored to favour by the success of his diaries. But it remains to be seen if Cell Mates will receive rehabilitation itself to join such Gray plays as Butley, Otherwise Engaged and his masterpiece Quartermaine’s Terms as contemporary classics.

Dastor has apparently bought his tickets for the Hampstead run and it will be fascinating to see how and if the play works away from its troubled debut. Will Cell Mates find a captive audience at last?

Cell Mates runs at Hampstead Theatre, London, until January 20, 2018

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