When this early work by John Osborne, written in collaboration with Anthony Creighton, opened at the Royal Court in 1958, several critics found it of better mood and structure than Osborne’s more successful Look Back in Anger. Now Peter Gill’s strongly cast revival, the first in the West End, goes some way to proving that the piece has been unjustly neglected.
The division of the spoils between Osborne and Creighton has long been disputed. But its tender portraits of the womenfolk, matching nothing similar in Osborne’s other plays, were almost certainly Creighton’s. These include the role of Mrs Elliot, here warmly played by Anne Reid as a suburban mother grieving for her lost son, who reaches out a maternal hand to George Dillon, an aspiring actor and playwright ready to accept free lodgings and sponge on her generosity. Meanwhile Geoffrey Hutchings as Mr Elliot shouts his contempt in the background.
Osborne claimed sole credit for the second act duologue between the snarling Dillon and Mrs Elliot’s sister Ruth, an educated outsider whose parallel love affairs with the Communist party and a neurotic artist have suddenly ended. Dillon is clearly an Osborne self-portrait lent added venom and complexity in Joseph Fiennes’ dark-eyed, smouldering performance. Francesca Annis as Ruth brings cool beauty and a transfixing vulnerability to the whole evening, and especially to this powerful scene with its sexual overtones, as George begins to doubt his claim to creative genius.
The turning point is the arrival of Barney Evans, wicked caricature of a provincial producer brilliantly played by Stephen Greif, who gives Dillon a first taste of commercial success but vulgarises his work in the process, leading to the moody despondency that brings the play to an end.
Designer John Gunter creates a quintessential fifties suburban setting. But on press night the tall staircase to seduction lost its purpose when Fiennes was balked by a non-opening door. But staying in character, he carted Zoe Tapper’s teenage Josie off to the kitchen to have his wicked way with her - one for the history books.