John Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger when he was married to the actress Pamela Lane, leading light of the Derby Playhouse, and they lived in an attic flat opposite the current theatre's rehearsal studios.
It was a relationship in meltdown. Osborne, who was a struggling repertory actor himself, used their marital wrangle as the core of his play and submitted it for production, but the Playhouse rejected it in order to spare Lane's embarrassment. The play found its way to the Royal Court where Tony Richardson's production in May 1956 (and Kenneth Tynan's famous review) changed the face British theatre.
I'm always surprised when I see a good production – and Sarah Brigham's 60th anniversary production is very good indeed – at how fine the play is, how well-structured, how impassioned, and how moving; because there's a recent critical orthodoxy that claims the play is misogynist, old-fashioned and creaky.
It's none of those things. Nor is it a mere platform for Jimmy Porter's ranting. Jimmy, played with a forceful physical energy and an anguished sneer by Patrick Knowles, is a soul in torment in a changing world, an over-educated sweet-stall holder – his university was more "white tile" than red brick – who's disgusted by the Sunday newspapers and his wife Alison's (Augustina Seymour) refusal to rise to his constant baiting and goading.
Jimmy wants to shock people into loving and loathing, stir them alive, combat the dreariness and hypocrisy of public life and private behaviour. His best friend Cliff (Jimmy Fairhurst) takes as much as he can stand – and interestingly suggests here an undercover intimacy with Alison – while Alison's best friend, the touring actress Helena (sharply done by Daisy Badger), moves Alison towards the exit door and then seduces Jimmy herself.
There's a Strindbergian intensity to all this, and you could feel the shock waves rippling through the audience, who are then hammered by Alison's tragic return; she's now moved onto the plane of feeling and experience Jimmy has brutally demanded. This is so effectively done that the squirrel and bear business of the lovers' reunion is far less soppy than usual.
Brigham must take credit for this, as she must, too, for the spectral fluidity of the show which is set on an open-plan domestic interior (designed by Neil Irish) with free-standing door-frames, clouds of steam and smoke swirling around the actors between scenes and during the important soundscape (by Ivan Stott, who also plays Alison's father, the blimpish, nostalgic Colonel) of depressing rain, jazz riffs and pealing church bells.
This same single-room apartment is occupied by a single actress, Joanna Simpkins, in Jinny by Jane Wainwright, an hour-long companion-piece for a contemporary Derby girl – also 25 years old, like Jimmy – standing on the same spot as Alison at the famous ironing board.
Jinny's a singer/songwriter who jumps on the ironing board as her bike to the big time. Her role models are Madonna and Dolly Parton and she's hoping the people who launched Ellie Goulding will do the same for her. Simpkins is an immensely likeable and confident performer in a piece more like Willy Russell than John Osborne; which is fine, but although it does have some good songs, it doesn't have the depth charge or political resonance of Osborne's classic, nor the sting of his indomitable, exhilarating prose.
Look Back in Anger runs at Deby Theatre until 26 March. Jinny runs at Derby Theatre until 23 March.