Comedy Theatre, London SW1
Opened 27 September, 2005

First things first: yes, there is a bit of a frisson watching Joseph Fiennes in a psycho-sexual duel with his brother Ralph’s partner Francesca Annis.  Both in their stage characters and in real life, she is, as others say more than once, old enough to be his mother.  But the thrill is far more because of the knowledge we bring as viewers than anything in either their terribly long scene or this puzzle of a play overall.

John Osborne and Anthony Creighton (who may or may not have been his lover) wrote this play in 1955. Only after the success of Osborne’s Look Back In Anger was a revised version staged in 1958.  Frankly, without Osborne’s name on it, it would probably still be unrevived. (As it is, this is only its second London production since its première.)  It’s full of youthful ambition, but also of self-conscious overwriting.

George is a would-be actor/playwright who’s taken in as a non-paying lodger by a lower-middle-class South London family. But he’s an arrogant sponger.  He relies on his charisma to see him through. When his landlady’s sister Ruth (Annis) doesn’t fall for it, he attaches himself to her niece instead.  In the final act, success, tuberculosis and bigamy all tumble out together. What does it all add up to? Search me.

The writing is often unrecognisable as being by John Osborne. At times the Elliot family seem to be just grinding along nondescriptly (as in a number of plays written by director Peter Gill).  At others, there’s an antique comedy to the goings-on. Then there are strains that sound like Coward or Rattigan in thoughtful or late-sentimental mode.  At its highest, it’s somewhere between German Romanticism and plain bluster.

Much of the third act muses on how to write a play... and, gosh, those very ingredients then appear onstage. George begins to see himself as protagonist.  This may explain why Joseph Fiennes’ performance is in a quite different register from the rest of the cast’s.  If he’s trying to show the character’s self-consciousness, it doesn’t really work. If he’s just going for bravura, he shouldn’t: it damages the play.

Anne Reid is terrific as Mrs Elliot, and Geoffrey Hutchings as her cynical husband is a sharper version of the character he played recently on this stage in Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Annis is minor-key and insightful.  But either the piece is unsure what it wants to be, or the playwrights lacked the skill to realise their aims.  It makes a serviceable star vehicle, but as a play, it leaves you bemused.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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