An intriguing and satisfying night out... after George

Review by Paul Nelson

 

A most satisfactory evening in the theatre is Life After George, currently being played at the Duchess.

The play was written by Hannie Rayson, an Australian, and one suspects is loosely based on her own experiences at Melbourne University. It is basically a comment on the decay of idealism in modern Australian life and her argument is that universities should be allowed to remain as places where the student is urged to think freely, not being constrained by any newfangled economic ideology. Coming at a time when students here are demonstrating for the return of government grant funding the play leaps into sharp contemporary focus.

The evening begins with the death, and then centres on the life, of Peter George, an independent noncomformist and professor at Melbourne University. It leaps around in time and space giving an almost kaleidoscopic picture of a life as seen through his three wives and daughter. Scenes in Paris, Tuscany, Australia and Flinders Island, near Melbourne, where George has a second home, flash across the stage rapidly under the magnificent direction of Michael Blakemore. The scenes take place during the entire period of 1969 right up to George's death in a plane he was piloting on his way to Flinders.

George was the son of a Newcastle on Tyne miner and emigrated to Australia where he taught history and urged individuality in his students.

His then wife, Beatrix, bore him two children, a son and daughter. However, George is a hedonistic womaniser, they divorce, and he marries wife two, Lindsay.

Lindsay is an attractive and carefree creature and George finds in her a vibrant and exciting addition to his life and work. Unfortunately, this ideal crashes when Lindsay joins the faculty and becomes a corporate woman, running the university like a business and, in George's words, turning it into a shopping mall instead of an academy of excellence for everyone.

The tapestry of this complex play gives scope for some exciting performances, particularly for the wives and daughter. The cast seize these opportunities with energy and manages to put on a show of talent the West End really needs these days.

In the title role, Stephen Dillane has the part of a lifetime and he too rises to the occasion. He is magnificent to watch and hear in his portrayal of a basically kind, but footloose man. At no point is his performance misunderstood or muddled. His clarity brings a deeper understanding of the play.

Outstanding among the distaff side are two actresses who are also a delight to the eye and ear. Joanne Pearce as Lindsay gives to the part what audiences dream of seeing in the theatre. Her early casual approach to the world juxtaposed with her fierce attraction to the corporate life as opposed to academe moves the character from fun-loving sweetness to hard businesswoman. It is rounded off when the skeleton in her own cupboard is revealed. As Ana, George's daughter, Susannah Wise excellently portrays the talented dropout. Ana has many skills that she prefers lie dormant and her deep feeling of rejection by her father has created a character of true fascination, which is greatly enhanced by the performance of the actress.

The play, if one had to carp, is too deeply plotted. That's not a bad thing these days, but there are moments when perhaps a longer discussion between the characters would throw more light on them and their complicated lives. In just over two hours, however, the author and Blakemore easily span all the times and complications of Peter George.

So, as it is, what with the three wives, their love stories and actions regarded as either jealousy or selfishness, there is more than enough here for an evening. It is an intriguing and satisfying night out.

Life After George won an award in its native Australia, and little wonder. The same should befall it here.

Life After George by Hannie Rayson. Presented by Michael Codron and Lee Dean in association with Mark Bentley and LHP Ltd. Designed by Peter J Davison, Music by Terry Davis, Directed by Michael Blakemore.
With Stephen Dillane (Peter George) Cheryl Campbell (Beatrix), Joanne Pearce (Lindsay), Anna Wilson-Jones (Poppy), Susannah Wise (Ana) and Richard Hope (Duffy). Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, WC2.