Look Back in Anger

John Osborne
Big Boots Theatre Company
White Bear Theatre

Aaron Bennett, James D Fawcett, Rowan Douglas Credit: Nicolas Chinardet

Look Back in Anger presents post-war youth as it really is, with special emphasis on the non-U intelligentsia who live in bed-sitters and divide the Sunday papers into two groups, ‘posh’ and ‘wet’.” So, wrote Kenneth Tynan in the Observer, following the first night of John Osborne’s ‘kitchen-sink’ drama at the Royal Court Theatre on 8 May 1956.

Here lies the conundrum for a 21st-century director: can Look Back in Anger be regarded as anything other than an historical artefact, and one of the great influences on the development of British theatre, or can it truly speak to present-day audiences for whom the idea of Sunday being a day when reading the Sunday papers, going to church, or listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams on the wireless are the only ‘entertainment’ options available is the equivalent of living on Mars—a generation for whom, in fact, the latter probably seems more credible.

Sebastian Palka, the founding artistic director of Big Boots Theatre Company which is currently presenting the first production of Look Back in Anger in London for twelve years, believes that it is possible to place the play in “a timeless universe to make the themes of the play more relevant and closer to the audience today.” So, instead of fighting over the ‘posh’ and ‘wet’ Sunday broadsheets, Jimmy Porter and Cliff Lewis bicker over that night’s edition of the freely distributed Evening Standard.

The anachronism grates a little. The unemployed graduate classes who populate Osborne’s 1950s East Midlands bedsit are afflicted with a stagnation and malaise which their millennial counterparts may share—though YouTube entrepreneurs may disagree—but, while Jimmy is one of a generation of young men who had attempted to leave behind their working-class origins, using higher education as the means by which to do so, he doesn’t have the shadow of a student loan to repay hanging over his head.

Perhaps the malaise has worsened. But, the contexts are not the same. Though all ‘youth’ may feel a similar frustration with the stranglehold which past generations exert over their own lives, there is no modern parallel for the post-war ‘Condition of England’ which in part fuels Jimmy’s anger. Osborne’s gritty realism has a political and cultural significance which it may be hard to comprehend more than sixty years later. Jimmy is a spokesperson for his generation; we wouldn’t expect him to pontificate about climate change.

And, much pontificating there is from Jimmy Porter, though here the ‘noise’ was surprisingly muted. Not only does James D Fawcett rarely raise his voice during Jimmy’s rants, but the other sounds through which Jimmy expresses himself—the Dixieland trumpet and the pseudo-music hall songs combining sex and sociology, “Don't Be Afraid to Sleep with Your Sweetheart Just Because She’s Better Than You”—make a tentative mark. Similarly, the noises that afflict him—memories of the girls who lived in a flat above him, “the eternal flaming racket of the female”, or the clangour of the “bloody bells” of the church opposite on which he visualises his landlady, Mrs Drury, swinging—seemed rather subdued.

The small White Bear Theatre provides set designers Marta Anna Licwnko and Tina Torbey with the perfect space in which to conjure the claustrophobia of a Sunday afternoon confined by lack of opportunity and by inclement weather. There are visual allusions to entrance lobby, kitchen, lounge and bedroom but asymmetrical diagonal lines effectively create the impression of dimensions beyond what is visible.

Two of the cast of four are making their professional debuts. Despite the challenges that Osborne presents, they work hard and effectively to craft compelling characters and relationships.

Aaron Bennett’s Cliff is a genial Welshman with a strong sense of loyalty and a desire for a quiet life. He works with Jimmy on the sweet stall which the mother of his old friend Hugh has helped him to establish. Whenever Jimmy’s vitriol rises, Cliff seeks diversion and protection from the brewing inferno: in the mending of a broken teapot, or the buffering up his black shoes to the point where the polished sheen is eye-blistering. Bennett’s Cliff is a convincing neutral buffer zone, but he doesn’t communicate the affection that must, surely, be the reason for his continuing to inhabit the “very narrow strip of plan hell” which is Jimmy and Alison’s married life. Cliff tends kindly to Alison’s arm when she is burnt in a boyish brawl, but we don’t really sense his real allegiance to Jimmy. Why else does he staying when Helena supplants her friend?

As Alison, Rowan Douglas is initially rather flat vocally; perhaps that’s a realist representation of the effect of both bearing the drudge of housework and enduring Jimmy’s emotional rollercoaster ride. But Douglas is increasingly expressive, gradually revealing the emotional turbulence of her courtship and marriage to Jimmy. With self-defensive matter-of-factness, she conjures the imagery of barbarian hordes and raiding smoking-parties which modulate into a vision of Jimmy as a knight-in-shining-armour. There is a beguiling honesty and pragmatism about Douglas’s Alison; she is plainly aware that her attraction to Jimmy is self-destructive.

Holly Hinton certainly conveys the alienation which Alison’s well-to-do actress friend, Helena Charles, feels in this foreign environment. But, when Jimmy taunts, “pass Lady Bracknell the cucumber sandwiches,” the quip doesn’t necessarily seem out of place. So Wildean are Helena’s mannerisms and so cut-glass her accent that Alison, the daughter of a Colonel and Anglo-Indian Empire, seems to speak with a distinctly middle-class suburban twang. That said, this Helena has a sensuality that is a flame to Jimmy’s match and, secure in her acceptance of moral black and whites, even when she does not live by them, she has a strength in hypocrisy which the others lack.

Jimmy Porter is quite a challenge for an actor making their professional debut, but James D Fawcett makes a valiant essay. He has a good appreciation of how Jimmy works himself up with his own rhetoric, the tempo and temperature rising as Alison and Cliff almost visibly withdraw from electric field surrounding him. But, this flair for self-indulgent performance and parody must be equalled by an introspective vulnerability, and this is where Fawcett struggles.

He has a tendency to rush the lines which, spoken with a quieter introspection might allow us to glimpse the vulnerably Jimmy beneath the vicious veneer. Jimmy’s right, surely, to berate Cliff and Alison for their inertia—“how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm”—and we need time to reflect here, even if it’s only to confirm Jimmy’s guilt-in-kind. Fawcett doesn’t really capture Jimmy’s sentimental idealism in his account of his father’s post-war demise or his eulogising of Hugh’s mother. In depriving us of both the extreme highs and lows, Fawcett presents a Jimmy who at times can seem merely cruel.

There are some excisions which do affect the dramatic structure and emotional shape of the play. At the end of act 1, the ‘squirrels and bears’ fantasy-retreat is downplayed. One consequence is to diminish the pathos of the close, but Jimmy’s own shocking end-of-act diatribe is also curtailed. This deprives us of full understanding of the vulnerability beneath cruelty and selfishness: for Jimmy expresses a contemporary masculine anxiety about disempowerment and spiritual emasculation which places fear and blame firmly on women.

At the start of act 2 scene 2, the arrival of Colonel Redfern to ‘rescue’ his pregnant daughter from her traumatic surroundings is replaced by a brief recording of some of the Colonel’s longer speeches (presumably to cut costs or because the young company do not have an appropriately aged member among them). The lines are convincingly delivered but what is a long episode is severely truncated, depriving us appreciation of Alison’s character and context, and Alison herself of self-awareness, as she recognises that her failure to give up her refuges is partly to blame for their mutual destruction: “… for twenty years, I’d lived a happy, uncomplicated life…”.

We are also denied real insight into Jimmy’s condition. For nostalgia and sentimentality surely unite Jimmy and his father-in-law; and so the latter recognises that Alison has not given Jimmy the loyalty he demands and requires, and the Colonel is able to warn Alison, with prescience, that she may not be able to discard her relationship with Jimmy as easily as she thinks. He was “born out of his time. That’s why he’s so futile” says the self-knowing Colonel. Such psychological sympathy is here diluted, lost.

At the end of the play, burning in a hellish reality, there is no further place for Jimmy and Alison to retreat to other than their squirrels-and-bears fantasy. The cast are compelling to the close, but Palka doesn’t answer the question he seems to have set himself: is Jimmy the voice of his generation, or does his unfocused anger come from within? Can Jimmy Porter—this “hero, a boor, a self-pitying, self-dramatising intellectual rebel” (Philip Hope-Wallace, Manchester Guardian)—still shock and move us today?

Reviewer: Claire Seymour