Written for CultureWars.org.uk
Simon Gray’s 1984 play The Common Pursuit follows a group of Cambridge University friends from their college days through to their early middle age, tracing their largely successful literary or academic careers from the first meeting of an undergrad literary magazine - the titular The Common Pursuit, named after the collection of FR Leavis essays from his own magazine Scrutiny. It also follows their markedly less illustrious love lives.
It is, in short, about as familiar as territory gets. There’s the heroically literary one with the glamorous girlfriend, the solid un-artistic business-minded one, the brilliantly talented gay one, the self-conscious virgin one and the one who gets all the girls. By the end of the second scene, set ten years after they’ve graduated, it is pretty clear the only real question is who going to end up screwing whose wife.
As a view of humanity it is pretty bleak. The characters are ultimately selfish and cowardly, while all commitment to higher ideals result in failure or disappointment. Their failings are all the more depressing for ringing so horribly true. Publishing and the media are depicted as cynical and largely worthless, while academia and work of artistic merit are by turns elitist or futile.
The script mixes this bleakness with some moderately good jokes, albeit mostly ones about the superiority (particularly moral) of Cambridge to Oxford, and some moments of genuine shock and pain for the characters. However, there is a corrosive misogyny running though characters, while the only woman to appear on stage is given absolutely no interior life whatsoever.
Fiona Laird's production is solid if uninspiring. The performances hold up well enough: James Dreyfuss turns in the best performance as the inevitably tragic gay moral philosopher and Reece Shearsmith the least, playing a man with two main character traits - a nervous laugh and a smoker's cough - neither of which he does convincingly.
Once the play has reached its chronological conclusion, the final scene, set back at the beginning of the play, where the characters meet for the first time, young, idealistic and hopeful, is still quite shattering for all the sadness that we now know is in store for them.