Life After George, Duchess Theatre, London

By George, I think they've cracked it
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The Independent Culture

The sixties are back. Not only because student radicalism features heavily in this play but also in the fact that it is here at all. It seems as though three decades have passed since such an intelligent, demanding, discursive and discussable play opened straight into the West End. Nowadays, with Shaftesbury Avenue the playground of grand slam musicals and movie adaptations, this is the sort of theatre the cranially endowed have long been praying for.

Just take a look at the subject matter: university politics in Melbourne from the late Sixties. This intimate intellectual history is all suddenly under review because Professor Peter George has just died in a plane crash. The first wife – the luscious Cheryl Campbell – lived with him on Rue St Germain and then made the move to Australia. His second wife – a "steely bright" Joanne Pearce – pursued him with all the determination that only an Engels-obsessed Feminist post-graduate can summon. His third – a naturally much younger, cyber-geeky Anna Wilson-Jones – seduces him with Umberto Eco prefaces.

But for all George's worship of "the majesty of Eros", this isn't just The History Man de nos jours. The play is passionately concerned with the creeping loss of idealism and the effect this is having on both academic institutions and intellectual life in general. It's not exactly the normal stuff you see on Drury Lane, and we clearly needed Hannie Rayson's prize-winning, editorial-provoking Australian play to reawaken our taste-buds.

Not that it's perfect, however. Perhaps the second act lacks a good enough storyline to get behind, though there are some cunning revelations hidden in the plane crash. And the only closure it offers is winsomely romantic when in fact what you want closed is the corporately sponsored Institute of Global Studies. But it does make you think about the similar compromises you may have made in your own life and, in my book, that's well worth the price of admission.

In fact, Stephen Dillane's performance is worth that on its own. He gives the most wonderful, exact and unshowy performance, constantly tucking and retucking his shirt, fidgeting his jacket collar, rarely granting his interlocutors his undivided eyeline.

On the page, the character might have prompted a hectoring type, an intellectual bully, but Dillane opts for the type who strokes his beard and waits rather than snatching at every cue. This is the self-satisfied, self-canonising, full-time revolutionist at work – he lives his life believing in the Human Capacity for idealism and simply shrugs away his own failure to live up to how others idealise him.

Thus, in a single evening, you move from Sorbonne sit-ins to the privatisation of universities via home-made ricotta. None of this would be possible without the uncomplicated mastery of the production by Michael Blakemore – weaving the short, sharp scenes into a fluid time-stream, and deftly steering them on and off the Duchess Theatre's minuscule stage.

So, thinking theatre-goers of the world, storm this breach in the barricades – book your tickets today; you have nothing to lose but your chance to see more Andrew Lloyd Webber.

To 15 May (020-7494 5076)

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