The year was 2007 when the star of one of the biggest television shows in the world appeared on stage at York Theatre Royal.
American actress Linda Gray, known to millions worldwide as JR’s alcoholic wife Sue Ellen in Dallas, crossed the Atlantic to star in Terms of Endearment, a new play by Dan Gordon.
Gray spent 11 seasons between 1978 and 1991 as the frequently tipsy Sue Ellen, wife of villainous oilman JR Ewing (played by the unforgettable Larry Hagman). The series made her recognisable around the world, not only the US where the Who Shot JR? episode was seen by a staggering 90 million viewers in America.
The stage version of Terms of Endearment was based on both Larry McMurtry’s novel and James L Brooks’ screenplay for the Oscar-winning film starring Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger as a mother and daughter whose often stormy relationship is traced over 30 years until a tearjerking finale. Jack Nicholson co-starred as the mother’s ex-astronaut neighbour.
In the York premiere Linda Gray played the mother, Aurora Greenway, with Gentleman Jack star Susanne Jones was her daughter Emma and John Bowe as the wonderfully-named neighbour Garrett Breedlove. Robert Fitch and Katherine Heath completed the cast. The award-winning director was American David Taylor.
Terms of Endearment wasn’t Linda Gray’s first theatre role in this country. She had previously played Mrs Robinson in the stage version of The Graduate in the West End and on Broadway. Ex-Coronation Street star Suranne Jones came from appearing opposite Hollywood actor Rob Lowe in A Few Good Men in London’s West End. John Bowe was another ex-Corrie actor who also had RSC seasons and TV’s Prime Suspect on his CV and has since done a stint in Yorkshire soap Emmerdale.
Linda told how the play’s writer Dan Gordon was determined she should be his Aurora Greenway. “When I was doing Mrs Robinson, Dan – who’s mainly a film scriptwriter – saw The Graduate and asked me if I remembered the film Terms Of Endearment. So I got out the VCR and watched it again, but I’d never thought of it as a play until Dan said he thought it would be a great relationship play, and the more I thought about it, the more intrigued I was.
“There’d been the book by Larry McMurtry, and then there was the movie, and now Dan has taken the book and the movie and woven them together to make this incredible, tight, funny, moving, touching, sad piece of life.”
The play may have been set in America, but the plan was always for the premiere to be presented in England. “It’s been about six years in the making, so it’s such a joy to see it coming to fruition. Dan’s original play had 14 characters, but the British producer said that wasn’t a good idea,” she explained.
Linda told York Press arts reporter Charles Hutchinson that this was her first time in the city: “I’ve never been here, but I’ve heard such resounding accolades. They’ve given me a beautiful brochure of York and I was so eager to get here to see what all my friends in London were raving about, and now we have the privilege of being here for five weeks.”
The critics had mixed feelings about the production. A BBC reviewer thought it “a very well delivered play that will have you laughing and crying before you leave the theatre”.
The British Theatre Guide reviewer was less generous saying that “the piece becomes a light, frothy comedy without developing the characters much beyond joke-generating sketches.” But the same critic did admit: “Undoubtedly Terms of Engagement will be very popular with many fans of the film, Dallas, Coronation Street, and any mothers and daughters looking for a family comedy night out.”
While calling her “the starriest American to tread the Theatre Royal boards since Charlton Heston”, Charles Hutchinson noted in his review that Gray’s “eyes and mannerisms – especially the way she wafts her hand – are a joy throughout”.
He concluded that “while Terms Of Endearment is far from perfect, you can stand back and enjoy Gray and Bowe lighting the fuse, before the soft onions start being peeled”.
The production ran at York Theatre Royal from 24 August to 15 September and then embarked on a 10-week UK tour from Guildford to Aberdeen. A West End transfer was mooted but never came to fruition.
By Steve Pratt