Sixty years after it changed British theatre, John Osborne's play gets an indie production at the Old Fitz
When it premiered in 1956, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was a legitimately shocking piece of theatre. It was the first play in England to explore the life and voice of the post-war working class; it’s reported that audiences gasped because there was an ironing board on stage, something they had never seen in the theatre.
The play has been regarded as, if not one of England’s great plays, then certainly a game-changer. It gave rise to both ‘kitchen sink dramas’ and the term ‘Angry Young Men’ (originally used to identify writers and characters who were disillusioned with their lot in life and the restrictive British class system).
But it’s 2016, and Redline Productions’ 60th anniversary production of the play can’t shock us anymore – at least, not as originally intended. The Old Fitz’s small, malleable theatre has played host to plenty of rundown flats over the past couple years, and has especially been focused on those same disenfranchised, explosive, violent young men that writers like Osborne unleashed – as in their critically acclaimed production of Howie the Rookie, which also starred Andrew Henry.
From our contemporary vantage point, proud, impatient, disillusioned Jimmy (Henry) – the raging heart of the play – is an abusive husband, more opprobrious than rebellious.
Co-directed by Damien Ryan and Lizzie Schebesta, this production feels painfully dated. The team have attempted to find a feminine perspective in the work, but that’s an impossible task; it wasn’t written with one in mind, and makes no room for one. While Alison (Melissa Bonne), Jimmy’s wife and the subject of many of his venomous rants (and physical abuse), possesses a remote sort of dignity, the directors can’t put words in her mouth or change her actions: she’s little more than a cipher to rail against, and eventually embrace, the man. And it’s not at all believable that Alison’s friend Helena (Chantelle Jamieson) would change in a heartbeat from trying to help her friend escape Jimmy to claiming him for herself.
Ryan and Schebesta don’t allow any moments to breathe: bombshell revelations are pushed past in seconds, and Jamieson and Henry’s scenes, full of plot twists, go by in such a flash that they can barely react before they are taking action. This breakneck pace does both characters and their shared plot (which needs all the clarity it can get) a disservice.
Jimmy is clearly a great role for any actor – he has most of the lines, and he launches into pages-long tirades that place him firmly in the spotlight – but it’s hard to maintain such a hateful character onstage and give him nuance. Henry gives a game performance but he never feels as in control of the room as Jimmy seems to be in the script: Jimmy pushes everyone’s buttons and knows exactly when it’s working and when it isn’t, but Henry never seems quite so calculating.
This production of Look Back in Anger adopts some of the choices made by acclaimed New York director Sam Gold when, in 2012, he staged a version of the play that excised Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern, from the script. The Colonel served as a balancing force within the text: he expounds his generational viewpoint and provides some context for both Alison’s upper-class upbringing and for the system that Jimmy is railing against, one which has in many ways failed him.
Without this context, and with just this toxic relationship and unbelievable love triangle – or square, if you count Cliff (Robin Goldsworthy), Jimmy’s friend who probably loves Alison – it’s difficult to understand let alone empathise with Jimmy’s anger, or appreciate how potent the class divide between he and his wife seems to be. As an audience member, it’s hard to invest in Jimmy’s emotional journey when he’s shoving his wife to the ground while she’s ironing and telling her how stupid she is.
Some plays that are considered seminal works remain relevant for years to come. Arthur Miller’s All My Sons – also a postwar play – deals with evergreen ethical issues like social responsibility and the damning corporate and military industrial complexes; Sydney Theatre Company’s recent production felt especially relevant.
Playwrights after Osborne have improved upon his first-time writing and strengthened his themes – and expanded and split into Britain’s Theatre of Ideas and Theatre of the Absurd movements, which have proved to have more staying power. In Australia, it’s not uncommon to see working classes, or Angry Young Men, on stage. Maybe now it’s time to listen to angry young women. Look Back in Anger, sixty years on, seems like it should be left in the past.
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Saw the preview which delivered the raw emotions you expect from this timeless classic. The audience feel they are in Jimmy's flat so close are they to the stage and actors. Great play to question your own moral values given a taut production which has you gripped to the end.