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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical


Fat Chance

Simon Gray

To purchase Fat Chance

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Title: Fat Chance
Author: Simon Gray
Genre: Autobiographical
Written: 1995
Length: 126 pages
Availability: Fat Chance - US
Fat Chance - UK
Fat Chance - Canada
Fat Chance - India

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Our Assessment:

A- : fine account of the bizarre events around the staging of Gray's Cell Mates

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A- 4/8/1995 Mark Lawson
The Independent . 13/8/1995 Robert Butler
New Statesman B- 11/8/1995 Aleks Sierz
The Spectator . 12/8/1995 Helen Osborne
The Times A 5/8/1995 Benedict Nightingale
TLS . 1/9/1995 John Stokes

  From the Reviews:
  • "The result -- pitched at a sustained level of hostility that makes Mommie Dearest read like a Mother's Day card -- will be a gift to future compilers of anthologies about the theatre, but even more useful to those editing collections of writings on betrayal and revenge." - Mark Lawson, The Guardian

  • "Reading Fat Chance you wonder whether it has a chance (slim, average or fat) of making it on to the stage." - Robert Butler, The Independent

  • "Gray has penned a 126-page hate letter to the actor, in which he lays into Fry's personality, his acting and his lack of moral fibre. (...) But Gray's main subject is Gray himself. And as the anguished roar of an author driven to the edge of a nervous breakdown by events outside his control, this is compulsively written, if not compulsively readable." - Aleks Sierz, New Statesman

  • "(A)n account of the making and breaking of Cell Mates that should do wonders for his reputation, finances and hurt feelings. (...) Though Gray's prose sometimes gobbles with indignation, he offers a lively picture of backstage chaos and a fascinating portrait of a man who might have stepped, crying "sorry, so sorry, bless you, God bless", from a Dickens novel. Gray's Fry shares traits with Jingle, Pecksniff and the charmingly spoilt Skimpole, yet is a genuine original: Mr Blandbabble, maybe ?" - Benedict Nightingale, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Fat Chance is a theatre-diary. It recounts the events that led to the staging of Simon Gray's play, Cell Mates, and then the story of the actual production. Written by capable hands -- such as Gray's -- such a theatre-diary can make for a decent read, but it might sound like a relatively unexceptional subject, perhaps only of limited interest. But then this was no normal production. This was the production where Stephen Fry did a bunk. Took off. Fled the country. Leading to some interesting reactions -- including considerable press-overreaction. And the folding of the play. It became a notorious cause célèbre, and Fat Chance is the first insider account.
       Simon Gray was naturally less than pleased by the turns of events -- the veritable whirlwind of events. But he decided to write about what had happened, beginning his chronicle before the play had even closed (but after the death sentence had been signed). "Memories of Cell Mates". It is a fascinating account.
       Gray tells much of the story of mounting the play. It took him years to write, and then ages to get it into production. The description of the difficulties encountered -- actors professing interest but not committing to a role, scheduling conflicts, egos and obligations, and the people one has to deal with (agents and managers in particular) --, though only cursorily discussed, should be enough to put most people off theatre-production. Alan Bates is interested in one role, but then Stephen Fry jumps on it. Rik Mayall is pulled in, pushed out, pulled back in. And Gray himself is roped in -- quite willingly -- to direct. On with the show !
       The trio -- Fry, Mayall, and Gray -- had, in fact, done it all before. Seven years earlier, in The Common Pursuit. That had gone well, and with Fry and Mayall even bigger stars now Cell Mates was surely bound for greater glory.
       The idea behind the play was also a fine one. Cell Mates tells the story of George Blake, convicted for spying for the Russians and sentenced to forty-two years, and Sean Burke, a fellow prisoner with whom Blake struck up a close friendship. Burke helped Blake escaped, and spirited him all the way to Moscow, after which Blake did not want to let him return to his native Ireland. Interesting characters and a wild story. Sounds like good theatre.
       Gray does a fine job of bringing the various characters together: the too brilliant, too charming Fry (who drives his own taxi), the eager, underestimated Mayall, and Gray himself, with all his foibles (including lots of champagne-quaffing). Gray writes very well, and develops his characters beautifully. Readers know what to expect (everybody knows what actually happened), but Gray manages to keep much of the suspense in trying to explain to himself how and why it happened.
       The details are telling and both hilarious and downright frightening. When the director checks himself into a clinic for a week before rehearsals finally begin, it is not an auspicious sign. Egos and psyches were bound to clash, and Gray does a very good job of describing how they did (and the attempts at glossing over and repairing the damage done).
       Mayall and Fry are complex characters, and Gray admits to being misled. Mayall struggles -- but he also works at his part, growing into it. Fry 's charm allows him to do the unacceptable -- and get away with it. Gray observes that Fry was "such a quick study that he knew his own lines too soon". Fry's brilliance is blinding, but it is also dangerous, and occasionally damaging. Devastatingly so, in this instance.
       Things go vaguely well until the play hits the West End. The reviews aren't half bad -- not that Gray reads the bad ones -- but there's one in the Financial Times ..... And the next thing Gray knows is that Fry has gone. Changed his answering-machine message a few times, and then disappeared. No one knows whereto. Nervous breakdown ? Or did he really do the big bunk ... ?
       Information trickles in: he'd spent a lot on whisky, cigarettes, and books after vanishing ("So if he'd planned to commit suicide, it was by smoking, drinking and reading himself to death"). It turns out then that he just fled for ... Bruges.
       Meanwhile Gray is trying to keep his play afloat. There's an understudy. The show goes on. But there is also the press (and some peculiar management ineptness) and the old adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity is quickly proved wrong. Gray tries hard to save the sinking ship, but it can't be done.
       Gray is, naturally, upset by Fry's actions. He tries to find explanations. And he manages to remain fairly generous, acknowledging Fry's talents (and his weaknesses). Mayall is the silent hero of the book (though he also eventually succumbs to the pressure). Media-madness gets its proper dressing-down. And the theatre-world sounds like one hellish place.
       A bizarre tale, well-told. Certainly recommended.

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Reviews: Cell Mates: Stephen Fry: Simon Gray: Other books by Simon Gray under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Michael Frayn and David Burke tell Celia's Secret from the Copenhagen backstage
  • David Hare's acting diary, Acting Up

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About the Author:

       British author Simon Gray (1936-2008) wrote numerous plays, as well as works of fiction and non-fiction.

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© 2001-2012 the complete review

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