Look Back in Anger

John Osborne
Northern Stage, Newcastle
(2009)

Production photo

We all know that Osborne's Look Back in Anger is a tremendously influential play, ushering in, in 1956, the twin concepts of the "angry young man" and the "kitchen sink drama", and so signalling a new direction for British theatre, but is it a great play, one that is not solely of its time but has something to say to us today?

I have to admit that I came away from Northern Stage last night in two minds. There is no denying the power of Osborne's writing. Jimmy Porter is an almost archetypal character, full of self pity which expresses itself in bile and spleen, lashing out at everyone and everything, taking revenge on that middle class society which, in the person of his mother and her family, allowed his father to die, effectively alone apart from the ten year old Jimmy, over a period of a year, something which he sees repeated, in essence, in the death of his friend Hugh's mother. There is huge significance, too, in the fact that the lover he remembers most is Madeleine, so much older than him and, indeed, a replacement for the mother whose coldness so alienated him. Now he cannot deal with love, except as sex or by retreating into the sentimental world of squirrels and bears.

Jimmy Porter is what we would nowadays call an abuser, albeit mental rather than physical, which is probably why a modern audience cannot find it in them to feel sympathy for him - and indeed Osborne does not give us much to feel sympathy for. Yes, it was terrible for a young boy to watch his father die, but I cannot help feeling that today we would say to the man, "It happens. Deal with it." Here, too, the age of the play shows: the Edwardian era is now virtually forgotten except as a piece of history. It certainly does not lay its dead hand on modern society, so Jimmy's railing against it does not spark the same reaction as it did 53 years ago.

What of this particular production? Jimmy Porter is played by former Coronation Street actor Bill Ward and, to be brutally honest, he is too old for the part. What is believable in a man in his twenties makes a very different impression when he is a couple of decades older: what can be seen as the angst of youth becomes mere petulance and self-indulgence, a lack of maturity. There were times, at the performance under review, that his diction slipped into what was almost a gabble, although, of course, that could have been an one-off: everyone makes mistakes sometimes.

Cliff is Jimmy's reliable friend, a calming influence and the mediator between him and Alison, the solid foundation which holds life in this awful flat together. Rob Storr's Cliff was stolid rather than solid, too much on one level. His quietness in his support for Alison was well-judged but the horseplay between him and Jimmy did not ring quite true and he lacked a certain sharpness or spiritedness in his sparring with Jimmy. And whatever happened to his Welsh accent?

As Alison, Nia Gwynne caught the pathos of the character perfectly - the look of pain on her face as Jimmy launched into his tirade about her having a baby and it dying washeart-rending - and Laura Howard makes the most of the calculating part of Helena's character, leaving us with the suspicion that she brought about Alison's "escape" as much out of her desire to get her claws into Jimmy as out of concern for her friend.

The part of the Colonel, Alison's father, is a gift for an actor of a certain age, a wonderful and moving cameo of a man who is lost in the modern world. Robert East hits just the right note, totally contradicting the picture of him created by Jimmy's ravings, leaving us wondering if, in fact, Alison's mother is "as rough as a night in a Bombay brothel and as tough as a matelot's arm," or if that picture is another result of his jaundiced view of the world.

Soutra Gilmour's set captures the seediness of the upstairs flat, helped by Charles Balfour's atmospheric lighting.

The house was thin, with many groups of young people brought (or sent) to see the play that gave birth to an important strand of modern theatre. Ths is an audience which is not used to a three act play which runs for more than three hours, with two intervals. The production will certainly give them an insight into the seminal play but they might be forgiven for thinking that, although it was very definitely a play for its time, it isn't really a play for today. Unlike the much older A Doll's House, also directed by Erica Whyman and seen at Northern Stage last year.

Kevin Catchpole reviewed this production on tour at the Salisbury Playhouse

Reviewer: Peter Lathan