Personal Enemy is one of two works by John Osborne long believed lost. It was originally staged in a version heavily cut by the Lord Chamberlain in 1955. His excisions from the text both contributed to the play’s initial failure (critical reception was mixed) and ensured its survival – the only copy of the text was preserved in the Chamberlain’s archive. This production at the White Bear is the first time the play has been presented in its original, uncut state.
Personal Enemy, co-written with Anthony Creighton (who also collaborated on The Epitaph of George Dillon), is about as far away from the “kitchen-sink” drama of Look Back in Anger as one could imagine. Set in small-town America in 1953, the play centres around Mrs Constant, a mother and pillar of the community, as her allegiance to her country and God is tested by her loyalty to her sons. One, a hero of the Korean War, refuses repatriation to America, whilst his younger brother, Arnie, is accused of being a communist and a homosexual.
Mr and Mrs Constant are products of the “honey, I’m home”-style, suburban, fifties America that we have seen so much of in the numerous films of the period. They have very safe, ordinary, "constant” lives and when confronted by the “sins” of their sons the foundations of their entire existence are pulled from beneath them. They are forced to try to understand, whether they like it or not.
It is on this front that the play falls short. The central figure of Mrs Constant is elevated to almost Greek heroine proportions, making Karen Lewis’s otherwise excellent performance occasionally feel a little too big for the tiny venue. Also, her change of heart is not fully explored, which leads to a rather weak end to an otherwise engaging play. Other notable performances come from Peter Clapp as Arnie, Mark Oosterveen as Sam Kessler and a lovely comic cameo from Genevieve Allenbury as nosey neighbour Mrs Slifer.
The whole production team, lead by director David Aula, deserve the highest of praise, and praise should also go to the White Bear themselves, whose air conditioning makes for an unexpectedly and pleasantly cool evening on the fringe.