is the random
- J.P. Donleavy from The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B
by Sheridan Morley
THERE are times, and they are coming around with ever-increasing frequency, when I despair of my critical colleagues in the daily press or what is left of it and them; for several years now the complaint has been, and justifiably, that the West End is full of elderly American musicals and mindless English comedies and not a lot else. So when at long last we get a new play (admittedly novel-based) which is both a comedy and a tragedy, a lyrical, lilting joy containing in the performance of Simon Callow far and away the funniest comic turn in town, what happens? Vague disconsolate murmurs that it is "neither one thing nor the other" and that perhaps it might have been better to have left the whole thing on the printed page.
The play is of course The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, adapted by J.P. Donleavy from his own novel and to be found at the Duke of York's to which make all possible speed since the box-office is likely to need your help. What you will find is a rambling, randy and wholly enchanting account of two 1946 Trinity College Dublin undergraduates being rapidly expelled (for keeping ladies of uncertain virtue in a cabin trunk) and propelled on a journey through life, London and Harrods which veers from high farce to an ending of - unless you've read the book - utterly unexpected sadness.
The title character is admittedly something of a problem; as the play opens we know nothing of him beyond that he's wealthy, Paris-born and has, while apparently still almost in infancy, managed to nanny with child. Patrick Ryecart plays him angelic and vacuous, but by the end of the evening we know little more; about his friend Beefy however we know almost too much. The magnificent masturbator, skidding along on infamy toward holy orders but forever interrupted by the need to get his hands on his all too lively grandmother's fortune, Beefy is one of the great comic creations of our time and from the moment of his first stage appearance, a butch, latterday Oscar Wilde in search of his audience, Callow plays him to the hilt and then way beyond. Beefy and Balthazar, childhood colleagues in pre-school smut, survive their expulsion from Trinity in much the way they survived their old headmaster, the dread bicycle-sniffer. They move to London, where Balthazar makes an unhappy marriage (having mysteriously lost his only true love in Dublin) while Beefy ends up in command of a lift until there is the inevitable crash. But whether charging into unlit bedrooms clad only in an assortment of bicycle chains, defiling widows, orphans and motor mechanics, or merely muttering "Blessed are they that lay down their garments", Beefy is a source of constant amazement and delight. Can his name really be getting smaller year by year in Debrett? Can his family motto really be "I'll thank you not to fuck about with me"? Has he really arranged for the Fortnums picnic hamper to be served to him during a Soho strip show? Does he really live otherwise on a daily tin of dogfood, "honest nourishment at an honest price"? The answer is yes, and at his final departure from Balthazar's life ("I go now to Maida Vale, from where only the hardiest ever return") the loss is ours too.
The supporting cast seems to be made up largely of Lady Bracknells (Lally Bowers, Sylvia Coleridge), but when did you last see a company of fifteen on a commercial London stage not doing a musical or emanating from a subsidised house? Ron Daniels, the director, keeps them all in a kind of order and the result is an unmissable adult treat.