There is little doubt that Look Back in Anger (1956) is the most famous post-war British play.... What is still not clear, 43 years after its premiere and five years after John Osbornes death, is how good a play it is.
It has become axiomatic to say it changed the face of British theatre, but ....When you compare Look Back in Anger with the work of Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter, Osborne seems distinctly old-fashioned.
There is nothing vaguely revolutionary about the conventional three-act structure, it is excessively wordy and it is marred by some exceptionally dodgy sentimentality. Yet watching Gregory Hersov's blazing production, with a tremendous leading performance from Michael Sheen as Jimmy Porter, almost all one's doubts about the play disappear.
Hersov and Sheen first collaborated on the piece in Manchester four years ago and came up with a fine production then. This new staging, in Robert Jones's cavernous and desolate attic design, is stronger still.
It brilliantly and shockingly captures the no-holds-barred emotional violence of the piece, for there are few bleaker portraits of a marriage outside the plays of Strindberg. Yet, as Osborne himself remarked, a Look Back in Anger without persistent laughter is like an opera without arias, and thanks to Sheen's marvellously rich performance the play is often blissfully funny.
The supporting performances are excellent, too: Jason Hughes is a hugely sympathetic Cliff, William Gaunt exactly right as Alison's crusty, loving father, while Matilda Ziegler makes Helena, Alison's friend and later Jimmy's mistress, far more persuasive than usual.
It is for its stark portrait of a marriage, however, that this production will be remembered, and the final scene, after Alison's miscarriage, is devastating in its quiet bleakness.
People often ask what Porter is so angry about. This production and Sheen's great performance make it clear. He is angry because life hurts - intolerably.
The case for the defence is that John Osborne's notorious 1956 debut Look Back in Anger provided a mouthpiece for a generation and class hitherto unheard in British theatre. The prosecution, meanwhile, argues that it is a play with too much ironing and not enough irony....but this triumphant National Theatre revival banishes all doubts.
...Gregory Hersov ... carefully shifts the focus of the splenetic writing away from its effect and forces us to consider the causes. This now seems far less a political play than a personal one.
Instead of adopting the all-too-prevalent habit of driving the actors to demonstrate directorial ideas, Hersov adopts the strangely unfashionable technique of allowing the text to speak through his actors. Thus the emotional content, the passion, love and fear all fall naturally into place and the result is simply gripping, like an eerie pre-echo of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Sheen has cornered the market in explosive energy, but this thrilling performance is his finest yet. As a character he roars, rants and whimpers, his self-disgust pouring off him like sweat, but as an actor he is completely relaxed, which makes him magnetic to watch. At one point, Alison (perfectly pitched by Emma Fielding) accuses him of being a child. Not only does the sentiment ring shockingly true, but the comment acts like a jump lead.
"Don't patronise me," he cries and suddenly you understand both his terrible neediness and the appeal of that neediness to others.
All in all, this perfectly paced production is nothing short of a revelation.
Plays change. In 1956 Osborne's work was praised for its social passion. Now, watching Gregory Hersov's strong revival at the National, what strikes one is its excavation of marital pain. It is as if Osborne has moved from being Shaw to Strindberg in a generation.
Obviously the play still catches the fractious boredom of 1950s provincial life and the discontent of frustrated youth. Eden's England is a place where, according to Jimmy Porter, reason and progress are in retreat, bishops bless H-bombs, culture is in the hands of an exclusive club and class has re-asserted its pre-war primacy.
Jimmy's retaliation, however, is either to marry or bed upper-class women; sex becomes a form of revenge on a social system. This gives the play its emotional dynamic: Jimmy loves Alison but loathes everything she represents, while she, far from being passive, deploys the classical tactic of strategic withdrawal. Thus their domestic life becomes what Cliff, the amiable buffer-zone, accurately calls "narrow strip of hell".
It's a shining performance from Sheen. And Emma Fielding as Alison makes nonsense of the charge that this is a nasty misogynist play. Fielding's Alison is an upper-class toughie who uses silence as a form of provocation, is capable of flooring Jimmy by remarking that he'd be "lost without his suffering" and who shocks even her father by the coldness of her defection. It is a good play precisely because Jimmy and Alison are well-matched opponents in the endless class war.
William Gaunt also lends Alison's Edwardian army father the right degree of pathos, Jason Hughes' Cliff is clearly besotted by Alison, and Robert Jones has designed a fine set dominated by a sloping, slate-coloured ceiling that oppresses the characters and reminds us that, in Osborne's world, marriage is always a mine-strewn battlefield.
A motormouth on a par with Hamlet, Jimmy rails against his middle-class wife, Alison, her family, the Sunday papers, a general lack of enthusiasm, and the chinless wonders in charge.
He blows his own trumpet, literally, envisages a world where all our children will be American and sex is a bloody battlefield.
He wants to see people suffer as much as he thinks he has, by seeing his father, and the one woman (not his mother) who believed in him, die in discomfort.
This mawkishness is superbly side-stepped in Gregory Hersov's revival in the Lyttelton, where the Strindbergian rawness and passion is etched into the performances, too, of Emma Fielding as Alison and Matilda Ziegler as Helena, the touring actress decked out in disdain and Dior.
Sheen is simply exhilarating in his great jazz riffs of speeches, mercurial and irresistable.
His spiritual barbarism and magnificent rhetoric of contempt are doubly refreshing next to the mealy-mouthed winnowing of much over-praised contemporary writing.
And there are cherishable support performances from Jason Hughes as the loyal Cliff and William Gaunt as Alison's bemused old father, as much at odds with new post-war Britain as the coruscating, self-centred rebel himself.
The great achievement of Gregory Hersov's production is that it shows us Osborne's fabulous rant is still very much a going concern. Above all, it gives Michael Sheen - surely the best actor of his generation - as chance to blister the paintwork. Sheen is electric as the impassioned armchair warrior. Amid all the class war stuff and the gags - he's very funny - he smuggles across the footlights an almost spiritual misery at the idea that "there are no good, brave causes left".
Helen Fielding is wonderful, too, as his partner, the posh girl forever at the ironing board.
All of it is topped and tailed with a fabulous jazz trumpet that burns off the grim drizzle of post-war England you can see running down the attic skylight.
It takes some kind of actor to redeem John Osborne's hero Jimmy Porter and Michael Sheen is certainly equal to the task.
Sheen's emotionally naked central performance
Gregory Herzov's stirring new production at the National. Look Back in Anger bursts into life
Emma Fielding brilliantly reassembles and deepens the part of the put-upon wife
Together, Sheen and Fielding have created a new and urgent dynamic for Osborne's play
Look Back in Anger belongs… in the National Theatre, where it is now excellently revived.
You hang on every word Sheen utters…this is a dazzling through the body performance.
Emma Fielding catches beautifully the complexities of Alison.
Jason Hughes makes the role of Cliff seem absolutely simple (it is not) and crucial (which it is).
William Gaunt's bluff but multi-faceted account of Alison's father adds several dimensions to the whole play
Gregory Herzov directs. Thanks to the excellence of his work, the audience follows this no-longer young play as if it were new.
The new production of Look Back In Anger at the Lyttelton, directed by Gregory Herzov, is a solid, well acted affair, with an outstanding performance in the role of Jimmy Porter from Michael Sheen.
The whole case was set down by Osborne with great vividness, and it could hardly be more vividly interpreted than it is in Michael Sheen's mercurial performance.
Independent on Sunday
Just at a time when John Osborne's reputation as a playwright is in freefall, along comes a young stage actor with the energy, verve and talent to make us see once again what an achievement it was for the 26- year old Osborne to write Look Back In Anger.
The casting is spot on
Mail on Sunday
a brilliantly observed, disturbingly intimate, utterly compelling portrait of a marriage, a privately fought class war, a bloody dissection of the human heart.
Never less than engrossing, largely due to transfixing performances.
The play has lost none of its anger and none of its dramatic power; theatre doesn't come more deeply felt nor better performed than this
Micheal Sheen gives one of the finest performances of the year as Jimmy Porter; he commands the stage with an ideal mix of bullying ego and crowd pleasing attention seeking.
Emma Fielding's Alison…is a profoundly affecting tour de force