1956 - The Suez debacle and Look Back in Anger. The two events are indelibly intertwined. But one has all but disappeared from the public memory; the other has become iconic. So it’s not surprising that Peter Gill’s production bringing Peter Hall’s 2006 Bath season to a close should have been so eagerly anticipated. Despite all the celebrations surrounding the Royal Court’s 50th anniversary celebrations - and a special evening given over to Osborne - this is the only major production Look Back in Anger will have had this year.
Despite this, and all the legacy baggage it carries, the burning question remains: how does the play stand up? Indeed, does it stand up at all now as any kind of play-for-today? Peter Hall himself has thrown some doubt upon it by stating that Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the 50th anniversary of which he marked with his own production last year (revived this year), is probably the greater classic.
Gill’s great achievement is to give Look Back a fresh emphasis. While Osborne’s harangues against class and privilege are still relevant for UK plc today, Gill, our greatest social realist director, provides new symbolism for them.
William Dudley’s wonderfully grungy brown, wall-papered garret room sets the scene, framed within a skeleton outline of a larger, Victorian dwelling complete with chimney stack and rampant lion statue. The place wreaks of claustrophobia, and run-down imperial decay within which Richard Coyle’s Jimmy rants and rages at Mary Stockley’s ironing board-chained Alison while Richard Harrington’s third party intimate, Cliff, looks on.
And that is Gill’s brilliance. For this Look Back emerges as not only a cry against a dying empire and passive indifference, but as a piercing enquiry into the damage of witnessing and sexual ambivalence. Gill‘s revival, ironically, looks back to the inheritance of Noel Coward and Design for Living, of emotional possession, and male-female conflict.
If Coyle’s Jimmy holds the floor, it is Harrington’s Cliff, caught in shadowy spotlight against a haunting jazz riff, who captures an atmosphere of aching loss and turmoil. Coyle’s Jimmy carries none of the self-lacerating charisma Michael Sheen brought to the role at the National a few years ago. But he’s not afraid to show his self-pity or misogyny.
Stockley grows in painful self-awareness and Rachael Stirling, sounding more than ever like her mother Diana Rigg, even to speech inflections, plays Helena, the girl friend with a vampish calculation quite at odds with her church-going character; theatrically riveting. Ronald Pickup gives heartfelt support as Alison’s ex-India army, ex-pat father.
But it is Harrington’s night. Watch him and weep.
- Carole Woddis