Astonishingly written in 17 days in a deckchair on Morecambe Pier, John Osbourne’s autobiographical, 61-year-old play occupies a place at the vanguard of modern British theatre, one of the first times that a working-class voice was heard in all its sound and fury on a UK stage. It is the inspiration for the phrase “angry young man” coined by the Royal Court Theatre’s press officer to promote the work. However, the world in which Osborne’s work was born, to quote another work published in the 1950s, L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between: “is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, is very different to the one we live in now.
It is easy to comprehend the shock value that young, working-class but highly educated, anti-hero, Jimmy Porter inspired venting his spleen from a dingy, down at heel, one-room flat in the Midlands (famously leaving its first audiences gasping at the sight of an ironing board on a stage). However, in Ed Robson’s production, these tirades of class rage and his particularly vicious attacks on his passive upper-middle-class wife Alison, appear to be disproportionate to the situation he’s in (running a sweet stall despite clearly having a searing intellect). The source of the anger doesn’t measure up to the level of rage on display here (ultimately he has a job, he has a roof over his head). While many believe the themes of the work have transcended the years and continue to have resonance, I beg to differ. Jimmy Porter’s world, a decade on from the second world war, with the British class system at its most acute, is incomprehensible to those living in 2017. Yes, economic and social constraints limit our opportunities today, but 1956 was a very different time.
I last saw the play 12 years ago with a pre-fame David Tennant and felt fully sympathetic to Jimmy’s railing at the world, The passage of time seems to have eroded my empathy. That’s not to say Andrew Rothney’s portrayal of Jimmy is at fault, quite the contrary, it is a tour de force and therein lies one of the problems with this production: so utterly detestable is the level of his discontent, his vitriol so bitter, the less than convincing supporting performances are thrown into sharp focus. Save for Esme Bayley as Alison’s friend and Jimmy’s mistress, they are a tad wishy-washy.
The staging too has its faults. It needs a better set to evoke a sense of time and place. Jimmy and Alison’s flat is minimally dressed, had it actually looked of the period it may have grounded the words in context. I suspect it may have been designed thus to demonstrate the themes are universal and could be played out in any era (no they can’t), either that or they have spent all their money on the rain effects that they had to cobble together the rest of the set from the back of a shed. A success though, is the multi-dimensional aspect of the set (some scenes are played at background distance) which allow welcome changes of atmosphere.
Too much time has passed and the world has changed so much, that unfortunately, Look Back in Anger is less than the working class rallying cry it once was.