Trafalgar Studios, London
Written by Stephen Clark
Directed by Christopher Renshaw
It is a rare treat these days to see a play written for its star. So it is with Le Grand Mort, penned by Stephen Clark and created specifically with Julian Clary in mind. Amidst a whirlpool of emotions, the unintended and unspoken sadness of the night is that Clark tragically died last year, never seeing the play brought to life.
Clark has written an exquisite piece that places Clary as Michael, a 50-something architect with a lifestyle that’s a fusion of Hannibal Lecter with, for those who can remember back that far, Graham Kerr’s Galloping Gourmet. (Younger readers may prefer to context Come Dine With Me.) Indeed as the play opens and Clary’s cookery commences, the air inside the compact Trafalgar 2 becomes quickly thick with the scent (stench?) of frying onions.
The action never leaves Michael’s kitchen, a fully functioning showpiece of a set from designer Justin Nardella, in which the preening professional is preparing pasta puttanesca (literally whore’s pasta) as he awaits the arrival of the much younger, rough-trade Tim. We learn that this is the first potentially romantic liaison of the two men after a period of pub-based flirting, but with a rack of chic kitchen knives ever prominent, menace is clear from the outset.
Clark’s writing has a cadence that’s rarely found these days, conjuring up images from a prose that is as assonant as it is meticulous. The whole piece runs for a non-stop 90mins, the first third of which is virtually a Clary monologue. One could almost be witnessing a grown-up version of The Joan Collins Fan Club such is Clary’s wit and persona - even if the patter he regales is a gruesome comment on death and necrophilia.
The arrival of James Nelson-Joyce’s Tim catapults the evening into a 21st century Sleuth. We learn that little of what the young man says is true - however it is clear from both his perfect physique and razor sharp wit, matching Michael's repartee word for word, that he is irresistible to the architect.
Clark’s writing is graphic and as his narrative unfolds to encompass incestuous paedophilia it is clear that his two protagonists are deeply damaged souls. But whilst the play’s language and its acting soar, it is hard to care too much for either man - even if Nelson-Joyce’s impressive nudity does briefly shift one’s attention from cook to cock.
The performances here are unquestionably first class and while Le Grand Mort may not be quite the comedy it set out to be, treat yourself to a large glass of Montepulciano and savour the work that’s on offer. Clark truly proves that there’s no fool like an old fool.
Runs to 28 October
Photo credit: Scott Rylander