The fanfare surrounding the 50th anniversary of Look Back in Anger in 2006 also prompted a serious re-examination. While there was no doubting the place John Osborne’s kitchen sink drama, a riposte to the middle-class fare that then dominated the West End, holds in theatrical and social history, whether or not the play still retains any significant impact was another matter.
Two years after that milestone birthday, Alexander Gilmour, making his directorial debut, has reignited the Look Back in Anger debate with this new production. In a programme note, Gilmour recalls reading the play for the first time during protests over the Iraq War and finding that Osborne’s expressions of disgust with England’s post-war “inertia” and loss of empire after the Suez crisis encapsulated his own feelings about the country today.
It’s a valid comparison. Sean Holmes drew similar parallels last year in his 50th anniversary revival of another Osborne play, The Entertainer (1957), in which Robert Lindsay tore up the Old Vic stage as faded music hall entertainer Archie Rice. But in Gilmour’s production, it’s Osborne’s class warfare that inevitably takes centre stage, and is given a fresh slant, on account of the casting of black actor Jimmy Akingbola as prototypical “angry young man” Jimmy Porter.
Gilmour explained to Whatsonstage.com when the production was announced that “the kind of frisson that was generated in 1956 of seeing a white working-class graduate abusing a posh wife and the Establishment … has been diluted 50 years later. I believe by casting a black actor in this role somehow it will get closer to the spirit of Osborne’s play as it was originally received.”
The conceit works, to a degree. Some of Jimmy’s lines – like “People like me aren’t meant to be patriotic” and, asked of his white, middle-class wife Alison in plaintive desperation, “Doesn’t it matter to you what people do to me?” – do pack extra punch. Racial differences are further underscored by Jimmy’s occasional lapses into a mocking Caribbean patois during his diatribes, while a Miles Davis’ poster on the walls offers an explanation for his devotion to the trumpet.
But if the colour of Akingbola’s skin does have any effect, it’s undermined by his performance, which he delivers at such breakneck speed that he frequently trips over lines and at times seems in danger of hyperventilating. Jimmy Porter is a difficult character to sympathise with in the best of portrayals – Michael Sheen, David Tennant and Richard Coyle have all found their own ways of exposing chinks in the character’s armour in recent years - but here it’s impossible. We simply don’t believe in this Jimmy’s hidden vulnerability.
Compensations can be found, however, in Laura Dos Santos’ highly poignant Alison, Jimmy’s bullied wife, so tired of life already, dragged down “in the mud at last”. This young actress is a real discovery. Simon Harrison as “common as dirt” Welshman Cliff Lewis, who valiantly tries to negotiate peace, and Sally Leonard, as Alison’s plummy-voiced friend Helena Charles, who organises Alison’s escape only to replace her in Jimmy’s bed, also offer able support.
But for all the company’s efforts, this revival does not succeed in finding its own fresh source of anger or assuaging fears that, as a result, Osborne’s play may indeed have – irretrievably - become a period piece.
- Terri Paddock