Writer: John Osborne
Director: Sarah Brigham
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
Sixty years ago John Osborne’s heavily autobiographical play Look Back in Anger opened at the Royal Court and sent shockwaves through a British theatre industry thoroughly unaccustomed to hearing a working class voice on stage. There is no question that in helping to propel the genre of “kitchen-sink drama”, the play deservedly occupies a place in theatre history. However, the mere sight of an ironing board on stage is no longer a shock in itself and so it is to the credit of director Sarah Brigham that her revival production finds alternative ways to challenge and surprise a modern audience.
Jimmy Porter is an ‘angry young man’ in ’50s Britain; an intelligent graduate working on a sweet stall who rages against an Establishment and class system that he feels is denying him opportunities and purpose. He takes much of his frustration out on his upper-class wife, Alison, who largely remains silent throughout his vitriolic diatribes. Their mutual friend, Cliff, often mediates and the arrival of Alison’s actress friend, Helena, proves to be the catalyst for change in the marriage.
This is an impeccably performed production led by Patrick Knowles, whose constantly restless Jimmy launches into long tirades as he fiercely tries to make something – anything – happen to shake up the perceived drudgery of his existence. He rails against the world yet does little to change it, having seemingly sunk into a routine he claims to be deeply unsatisfied with but from which is either incapable or unwilling to break free. Porter is thoroughly unlikeable for the majority of the play, yet Knowles shows occasional moments of vulnerability that garner, if not sympathy, then, at least, an understanding of why the character acts as he does.
Alison has resorted to using silence as her weapon, refusing Jimmy the reaction he is so desperate to provoke. Augustina Seymour is excellent as Alison, embodying her with a quiet strength and dignity that heartbreakingly gives way to grief and despair. In an impressive stage debut, Daisy Badger has both poise and presence as Helena and Jimmy Fairhurst is amiable and engaging as Cliff. Credit to Fairhurst too for seamlessly continuing through a clearly unplanned press night injury. Ivan Stott makes an affable appearance as Alison’s retired Colonel father, who has status and wealth yet also feels out of place in a post-war world.
Stott is also responsible for the atmospheric sound design, with bursts of jazz and the pealing of church bells conjuring images of the world outside the one room flat in which the characters seem trapped. The set design by Neil Irish feels suitably cramped and claustrophobic and surrounds the flat with walkways into the darkness, enhancing the notion that those inside are isolated from the society beyond.
Osborne’s dialogue is absorbing but almost entirely humourless, Porter uses only anger to express his feelings of frustration and there is none of the black humour or self-deprecating scathing wit those faced with real adversity often show flashes of. This coupled with a lead character who is often frankly deplorable means that Look Back in Anger is undoubtedly difficult to watch at times and is a largely bleak viewing experience.
Bleak it may be, but the play is a satisfying and thought-provoking experience too.Look Back in Anger is unquestionably aproduct of its time but its themes of social mobility, discontent and domestic abuse remain as relevant today as ever. The play itself may not be as groundbreaking as it once was but with first-rate direction and performances, this production breathes new life into a classic piece that has delivered whole generations a platform with which to share their voices.
Runs until 30 April 2016 | Image: Robert Day