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Look Back in Anger

John Osborne
Theatre Royal Bath
(2005)

Look Back in Anger production photo

You can see how Look Back in Anger must have caused outrage in its day, much as Joe Orton did ten years later. Even now, just short of a half century on - half a century! - one feels a frisson run through the Bath Theatre Royal at some of the vicious barbs that Jimmy Porter, the original angry young man, hurls at Alison, his long-suffering spouse, never more so than when he wishes that she, who, unbeknown to him is pregnant, could have and lose a baby.

It is genuinely shocking, the more so as Alison, first seen bent over an ironing board like Picasso's blue guitar player, has offered no or little resistance. But Jimmy's behaviour is not meant to seem gratuitous."One of us is mad," Jimmy, played by David Tennant, tells Alison, (Kelly Reilly). Either it's him, the walking embodiment of The Scream, maddened by the hypocrisy, apathy and duplicity of those around him, or her, sunk in pusillanimous torpor. The pain of losing a child he tells her is probably the only thing that will wake her up.

Everything depends on the actor playing Jimmy, himself the embodiment of the author. He has to convince us of Jimmy's menace and unappeasable rage, but he has also to remain in spite of this (and partly because of this), fiercely lovable and attractive. It's a tall order for an actor to pull off. The mesmeric Michael Sheen, most recently seen on stage in Caligula, realised it brilliantly a few years ago in a production which transferred to the National Theatre. Here, David Tennant, most recently seen in The Pillowman, gives a fine performance, conveying Jimmy's sense of pent-up frustration, bouncing off the walls of his attic Midlands flat, perching on and jumping off furniture.

However, he lacks, perhaps because of his slight physical presence, real menace and comes across as shrill rather than a latter-day Christ lashing the moneylenders from the temple. Perhaps too Osborne's writing is to blame for my growing irritation with Jimmy's self-obsession. We learn that Jimmy watched his father die when he was 10 and how his well-to-do mother and her relatives, eager for his father to spare them the embarrassment of a protracted death, sparked an abiding class hatred and hatred of hypocrisy.

But great as his grief is, does it excuse his indifference to the suffering of others? I couldn't decide how far we are meant to sympathise with Jimmy who, it could be argued, is in a state of retarded adolescence. The play's opening scene and Trevor Coe's cutaway dingy interior with rooftop, brilliantly conjure up the dreariness of Sunday in the suburbs which I can remember, growing some years after the play premiered, only too well. You understand Jimmy's sense of frustration at the drabness and dullness but his hostility is too omni-directional. It is as if Osborne was so full of bile when writing the play he couldn't find the distance to give his material sufficient shape and control

Tennant is well supported, most notably by Steven McNicoll as Cliff, Jimmy and Alison's slobbish but genial flatmate. Kelly Reilly, highly-praised in her recent West End outing in After Miss Julie sparks fitfully but seems a little under-realised. Alexandra Moen as Helena and Garth Thomas as Colonel Redfern make up the company with decent enough performances, particularly Moen who morphs effectively from aggrieved rectitude to melting infatuation.

The political, social and cultural landscape may have changed since 1956 but many of Jimmy's and thus Osborne's targets remain pertinent, namely, the smugness, hypocrisy and stifling conformity of middle England. The wrath may be ultimately all-consuming and incoherent, but Jimmy's snarl to Alison that: "I want to stand up in your tears and plash about and sing", reminds of a singular and singularly angry talent, worthily revived here by director Richard Baron, still able to disturb and discomfit 50 years on. Rage on John Osborne!

Rachel Lyn Brody reviewed this production at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Reviewer: Pete Wood