After Pilot Theatre’s triumphant production of Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads, the company’s take on Look Back in Anger, co-produced with Harrogate Theatre and Oldham Coliseum, proves a tedious disappointment. It must have seemed a good idea to re-examine one of the most influential plays of the 1950s after 50 years of social and theatrical change, but the years have not been kind to John Osborne’s ground-breaking play.
Marcus Romer’s production is gimmick-free and Ali Allen’s excellent non-naturalistic design, with Vorticist shapes and newspaper motifs, adds symbolic force to an effectively cramped bed-sit setting. However, the curtain-free open stage diffuses the impact of the end-of-scene revelations – for, oddly enough, Look Back in Anger has many of the trappings of the traditional “well-made play”.
Famously, this is the play where a woman in a man’s shirt does the ironing while her husband rants about the wrongs of the world. Remarkably that just about sums up Act 1. Jimmy Porter, the original Angry Young Man, rails against his upper-class wife, Alison, and all she represents; their friend Cliff (played by Davood Ghadami with less warmth and Welshness than I remember) seeks to keep the peace. Alison is unable to tell Jimmy that she is pregnant, but the plot is moved forward by external factors: the illness and death of the couple’s benefactor – a woman loved by Jimmy, ignored by Alison as working-class – and the arrival of Alison’s friend Helena, with all sorts of unforeseen consequences.
It is not primarily Karl Haynes’ fault that Jimmy emerges as little more than a neurotic and self-obsessed bully, with no hint of the grand causes he seeks to espouse. His seemingly endless diatribe, much of it trivial in theme and monotone in writing, could perhaps be relieved by more variety in the performance, though Haynes does find the tenderness in Jimmy’s account of his father’s final illness.
Osborne’s misogyny makes life difficult for Sarah Manton (Alison) and Rina Mahoney (Helena). Mahoney is suitably poisonous when given the chance and Manton’s restraint even extends to the notorious squirrels-and-bears episode, but their old-fashioned, ultra-expository duologue in Act 2 defeats all attempts to make it interesting.
Fifty years on Osborne appears very much a Grumpy Old Man in the making, a confirmed nostalgic as much in sympathy with Alison’s father’s memories of 30-odd years with the maharajah’s army as with Jimmy’s second-hand recall of the Spanish Civil War. Certainly dated, Look Back in Anger shows no signs of turning into an effective period piece.