Redtwist Theatre. By John Osborne. Directed by Jonathan Berry. With Joseph Wiens, Baize Buzan, Lucy Carapetyan, Japhet Balaban, Larry Baldacci. Running time: 2hrs 40mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kevin Thomas
It’s easy to forget the ’50s in America was not the ’50s in England. The interlude between our D-Day and Beatlemania documentaries saw the British empire collapse, along with the traditional class system that forged it. The divisions remained, though their common purpose did not.
Look Back In Anger distills a broad societal experience into an emotional domestic story. Jimmy Porter (Joseph Wiens) is a well-educated, lower-class firebrand who married the upper-class Alison (Baize Buzan) during her fit of youthful rebellion, and five years on their romance is beginning its inevitable collapse.
As Jimmy, Wiens may as well be a bespoke clone ordered for this production. His youthful, violent zeal begs one to overlook the beginnings of a bald spot and the hint of a belly. He’s taller than the rest of the cast and peers disdainfully at them over an aquiline nose. Jimmy is a young man who isn’t one anymore. Rebellion and liberalism have soured to cynicism and contempt. I genuinely forgot that Jimmy was played by an actor, or even that he was a character. It’s more like he were a bottle of whiskey and everyone else an alcoholic; an all-consuming cloud that hangs over the household.
Alison, then, becomes our main character, and Buzan eventually dominates the stage even when Jimmy is present. Redtwist’s production accomplishes a deft transformation. The longer the play goes, the more the doormat Alison feels thoughtful, brave, and sympathetic, while the clever and venomous Jimmy becomes just so much noise, an inevitable force that our newfound heroine has to struggle with.
But don’t be misled to thinking this is a heroic play. It’s a domestic struggle shaped by massive forces of class and history. Director Jonathan Berry nails the attention to detail that defines British drama—passing looks, hand gestures performed or not performed, infinitesimal hesitations in speech. He lets the smallest things speak for people who feel there’s no glory left for them—even by proxy. They revel in the demise of Edwardian society even as they desperately long for the power that class lost, and now rich and poor are staring at a bleak future.
Expecting warmth from anything labeled “Mid-Century British” is ridiculous, but just in case I’ll say it: Look Back In Anger isn’t a personable play, and it’s not a personable production. And while the script gives its side characters intimate moments, I’ve never liked how it refuses to resolve their stories.
But while it may not be warm, Redtwist’s Look Back In Anger is never bleak. Its cynicism is red-blooded and alive, tearing for meaning while tearing meaning from everything.