Theatre The Last Romantics Greenwich Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
"Collaboration", wrote FR Leavis in the preface to The Common Pursuit, justifying the role of the critic, "may take the form of disagreement, and one is grateful to the critic whom one has found worth disagreeing with." You hope Nigel Williams can muster up some gratitude for the critics at the moment; if he can't, it's understandable. Last week, his comedy Harry and Me attracted near-universal scorn from the reviewers at the Royal Court. This week, his television play about the Leavises, The Last Romantics, transferred to the stage at Greenwich, and will presumably do the same.

The play is set in the Leavises' suburban villa in Cambridge in 1968 (dread year!), where the ageing FR, an isolated figure within the university establishment, is teaching one of the few undergraduates he can now get: Tulloch, an innocent working-class boy from Glasgow, bursting with enthusiasm for books and for Leavis's lofty, intransigent approach. While Tulloch attempts to read through this week's essay, on Romanticism, Queenie bustles in and out, offering barbed and dismissive comments on Tulloch's opinions, and quarrelling with FR about his attitude to his mentor, Q - the late Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Into this already prickly atmosphere bursts the anarchic student Costain, a fiery young radical more interested in action than ideas.

You can't help wishing that something of Costain's attitude had rubbed off on the author. The Last Romantics is bustling with thoughts and ironies - indeed, the whole play is founded on the big irony that Leavisite criticism, with its emphasis on the poem on the page and its rejection of context, was itself a product of the Leavises' circumstances. The traumas of their own lives - FR's time in the trenches, Queenie's split from her family - led them, you gather, to seek refuge in literature; their rejection of Q's cosy "other men's flowers" view of English literature was no more than a retreat into a different kind of cosiness.

But Williams fails to integrate the ideas and the characters. His FR is a tender, complicated figure - his regrets and his asperity both brought out in Mark Kingston's decent performance - but Queenie (Maggie Steed) is reduced to a set of spiky one-liners, and Q, who crops up in frequent flashback, is a caricature of a gentleman-scholar, with a touch of the snake-oil salesman (I'm not sure how far this is the fault of Robert Langdon Lloyd's acting, and how far it's intended by Williams). Tulloch and Costain are both functional figures, excuses for airing arguments.

On the other hand, that may be intentional. There's no way of telling - the style of the dialogue shifts unpredictably, sometimes jumping into Stoppardian cross-talk, sometimes seeming to drift into soap-opera realism, and Matthew Francis's production doesn't offer any signposts. On the other hand, you can't blame him for the lack of coherence: what with the triple time-scheme (1960s, 1920s and the notional present in which Tulloch is narrating these events), Costain's unconvincing eruption into the room, and Tulloch's climactic but inexplicable rejection of literature, it's an awful mess. The sense that it's all been scrambled together rather haphazardly is enhanced by Lez Brotherston's garish, cramping set, which leaves the characters rushing around on the margins of the stage much of the time.

There are, to be fair, some neat jokes in here, among them FR Leavis's declaration: "A lot of people want a critic's approval - which is why it is important to withhold it as long as possible." In this case, duty doesn't come hard.

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