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Look Back In Anger

Intriguing And Powerful| The Edinburgh Guide Jan 18 2005
 
This vastly influential play had an revolutionary effect on British theatre in the 1950s, in a new century this tightly directed Royal Lyceum/ production delivers an intriguing and powerful effect. Its antihero Jimmy Porter was the first of the angry young men.

A recent "new university" graduate Porter is angry at a world he sees as lacking in strong causes and the changes it needs. David Tennant, in a most welcome return to the Scottish stage, imparts a fierce, febrile energy to Porter as he berates the awfulness of a British Sunday prior to colour supplements, 24/7 opening and our present day highly mobile world. He's a young, bitter cynic about the world retreated to his small universe - wife, job running a sweetie stall and his life in a one-bedroom attic flat. He rages at those around him but does nothing to make things change.

Not quite as fragile as her upper middle class background would suggest, his wife Alison in Kerry Reilly's heart aching portrayal is a young woman teetering on the edge of anguished tears. Arriving in the second act is Alison's seemingly tougher friend Helena, who Jimmy refers to as his enemy, played by Alexandra Moen with a steel so we particularly relished her exchanges in the first half with Tennant's Porter.

Almost sharing Jimmy's life if not his jaundiced view of the world is Welshman Cliff, part buffer between Jimmy and those he attacks and punchbag when he needs a bit of male rough and tumble, Cliff's different more stolid and wry comic attitude are well attuned in Steven McNicoll's performance. In a single scene, Gareth Thomas as Alison's father Colonel Redfern is both tender and wise. At all times the interactions between each of the characters are finely and effectively detailed in this production, and the human theme of love makes us ache for them all.

Well worth recommending, what makes the play particularly rewarding to see, 49 years after it first came to life, is its resonances today. Jimmy Porter's angst echoes uncomfortably in our modern souls. For today our new elite increasingly behaves like the old order we thought we had banished, new graduates find themselves unable or unwilling to take the jobs they're notionally qualified for, and those who thought they might bring a new world order face their sixties knowing they failed to design new horizons.

The cruel irony of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger is that, nearly 50 years on, many of us are just starting to face that there are good reasons to look now and be angry but will we do any more than that? Or at best, are we railers against the way things are like Porter? Hoping that in our agony someone will give us occassional magical escape from the inescapable mire.
 
 
Still Angry Half A Century On | The Independent Feb 3 2005

HOW SHOULD we look back now on John Osborne's mould-breaking Fifties drama, Look Back in Anger? With gratitude to non-iron shirts, which have relieved wives of the tedium of the thankless task of ironing, and to women's lib for making it possible for men to steam ahead with the smoothing iron? With relief that now, even in dreary Derby on a drab Sunday, there's something for people to do apart from ironing, drinking endless cups of tea and dissing the predictable views of the Sunday papers? With disgust for a husband who so patronises his wife that he wishes he could watch her experience the tragedy of losing a child in order to become "a recognisable human being"?

However much attitudes may have changed in the half- century since Osborne's voice raged - arousing cheers, controversy and contempt - his heavily autobiographical play is still gripping in its awful intensity and sheer provocativeness. Played by a cast as good as that assembled by the Royal Lyceum, burgeoning under the artistic direction of Mark Thompson, the details of Jimmy and Alison Porter's painfully edgy marriage hit home with the precision of a marksman in Richard Baron's production.

Cooped up in their dismal attic bedsit, like the animals (bear and squirrel) into whose personalities they periodically escape, the Porters are brought brilliantly to hellish life by David Tennant (soon to star in the new Harry Potter film) and Kelly Reilly, whose forthcoming appearances in four films, alongside the likes of Dame Judi Dench and Audrey Tautou, have made her very hot property indeed. Tennant's rants may have a coruscating effect on the audience, but Reilly's apparent indifference, her loud silence and her detached body-language suggest another story. Is she numbed into passivity by his misogynistic bullying? Or exhausted by her claustrophobic existence, cooped up with such a brittle bundle of seething energy and radical opinions?

Tennant treats Trevor Coe's realistic set like a gym, working out his frustrations as he jumps, perches and runs around in circles, his movements as feverish as his mind and as spiky as his tongue. But there's a sensitive side to his portrayal, too - a touching vulnerability as he recounts his presence at two deathbeds, and traces of the charismatic charm that make him irresistibly attractive.

Reilly brings a hypnotic grace to the role of Alison, finding her own passive path to survival in the jungle of their relationship, until the arrival of her friend Helena (Alexandra Moen), representing the era of repertory theatre that Osborne's work changed irrevocably. She blows the whistle, summons Daddy (a remarkably sympathetic Gareth Thomas), and crosses the floor in this game of sexual politics.

There is good work, too, from Steven McNicoll as their flatmate Cliff, who negotiates his way through the eruptions fizzing around him and, occasionally, sweeping him along, as in the variety-style number into which Jimmy and Cliff seamlessly slip.

The imagery and language have travelled surprisingly well through time, even Jimmy's fascination with jazz trumpet, his pipe-smoking, his disillusion with stale politics, the fusty establishment and rigid authority. But Baron also brings out the humour, tempering the incoherence of Jimmy's raging and the bewildering placidity of Alison's unresponsiveness.

The Britsh Theatre Guide Review | Reviewed in Bath

You can see how Look Back in Anger must have caused outrage in its day, much as Joe Orton did ten years later. Even now, just short of a half century on - half a century! - one feels a frisson run through the Bath Theatre Royal at some of the vicious barbs that Jimmy Porter, the original angry young man, hurls at Alison, his long-suffering spouse, never more so than when he wishes that she, who, unbeknown to him is pregnant, could have and lose a baby.

It is genuinely shocking, the more so as Alison, first seen bent over an ironing board like Picasso's blue guitar player, has offered no or little resistance. But Jimmy's behaviour is not meant to seem gratuitous."One of us is mad," Jimmy, played by David Tennant, tells Alison, (Kelly Reilly). Either it's him, the walking embodiment of The Scream, maddened by the hypocrisy, apathy and duplicity of those around him, or her, sunk in pusillanimous torpor. The pain of losing a child he tells her is probably the only thing that will wake her up.

Everything depends on the actor playing Jimmy, himself the embodiment of the author. He has to convince us of Jimmy's menace and unappeasable rage, but he has also to remain in spite of this (and partly because of this), fiercely lovable and attractive. It's a tall order for an actor to pull off. The mesmeric Michael Sheen, most recently seen on stage in Caligula, realised it brilliantly a few years ago in a production which transferred to the National Theatre. Here, David Tennant, most recently seen in The Pillowman, gives a fine performance, conveying Jimmy's sense of pent-up frustration, bouncing off the walls of his attic Midlands flat, perching on and jumping off furniture.

However, he lacks, perhaps because of his slight physical presence, real menace and comes across as shrill rather than a latter-day Christ lashing the moneylenders from the temple. Perhaps too Osborne's writing is to blame for my growing irritation with Jimmy's self-obsession. We learn that Jimmy watched his father die when he was 10 and how his well-to-do mother and her relatives, eager for his father to spare them the embarrassment of a protracted death, sparked an abiding class hatred and hatred of hypocrisy.

But great as his grief is, does it excuse his indifference to the suffering of others? I couldn't decide how far we are meant to sympathise with Jimmy who, it could be argued, is in a state of retarded adolescence. The play's opening scene and Trevor Coe's cutaway dingy interior with rooftop, brilliantly conjure up the dreariness of Sunday in the suburbs which I can remember, growing some years after the play premiered, only too well. You understand Jimmy's sense of frustration at the drabness and dullness but his hostility is too omni-directional. It is as if Osborne was so full of bile when writing the play he couldn't find the distance to give his material sufficient shape and control

Tennant is well supported, most notably by Steven McNicoll as Cliff, Jimmy and Alison's slobbish but genial flatmate. Kelly Reilly, highly-praised in her recent West End outing in After Miss Julie sparks fitfully but seems a little under-realised. Alexandra Moen as Helena and Garth Thomas as Colonel Redfern make up the company with decent enough performances, particularly Moen who morphs effectively from aggrieved rectitude to melting infatuation.

The political, social and cultural landscape may have changed since 1956 but many of Jimmy's and thus Osborne's targets remain pertinent, namely, the smugness, hypocrisy and stifling conformity of middle England. The wrath may be ultimately all-consuming and incoherent, but Jimmy's snarl to Alison that: "I want to stand up in your tears and plash about and sing", reminds of a singular and singularly angry talent, worthily revived here by director Richard Baron, still able to disturb and discomfit 50 years on. Rage on John Osborne!

British Theatre Guide Review | Reviewed in Edinburgh

If the rest of this spring's shows at the Lyceum come anywhere close to the quality of Look Back In Anger, Edinburgh theatre-goers are in for a stunning season. If not, at least the Lyceum has started 2005 off with what may be the strongest production I've seen at this theatre since I arrived in Edinburgh in the autumn of 2003.

Look Back in Anger is the story of a married couple's tempestuous relationship. Although it premiered in the late fifties the humanity of these characters is still completely accessible. In this production, husband Jimmy Porter is played by David Tennant, with Kelly Reilly playing his wife Alison. Jimmy's pal Cliff (Steven McNicoll) and Alison's school chum Helena (Alexandra Moen) are the opposing external forces that wreak havoc on the Porters' marriage, and Gareth Thomas makes a brief appearance as Alison's father, Colonel Redfern.

Without the crackling chemistry between all four of the younger cast members, this could have been a very, very tedious play - one of those shows in which characters do a lot of standing around shouting at one another. It's not that what they're saying isn't important or devastating - almost invariably Osborn's words strike right to the heart of situations that are both heartbreaking and infuriating - but as happens in all the best productions of well-written drama, what the actors bring to the story simply elevates the play to a whole new level of intensity.

With the help of director Richard Baron, the company accomplishes moment after moment of pure, fearless honesty. Whether this takes place in the form of Jimmy's impassioned ravings, Alison's desperate silences, Cliff's unhesitating advocacy on behalf of the Porters, or Helena's calculated scheming, time and again those involved with bringing this production to life are astonishing in their ability to expose the inner workings of these characters.

Osborn's characters are cruel and merciless with one another, tearing one another's heads off one moment only to plead for understanding and love in the next. Audience members will see this demonstrated over and over again from the early moments of the piece, and should realize what a rare privilege it is to witness such an all-consuming display of talent from a group of such high calibre.

Trevor Coe's set is complicated and gorgeous, and especially in the first scene it makes use of colour in such a way that audience members discover each character unfolding from a dull background, breathing their way into life as the show gets underway.

The show runs until 12th February, and as Edinburgh is only a day's train ride from any part of the UK, no theatre-lover in either Scotland or England has any excuse to miss seeing this sensational production - until (as will happen if there's any justice in the world of theatre) the run sells out.

First Night Review | The Times Online

ONE of the many hopes for the nascent National Theatre of Scotland is that it will strengthen casting. There are some fine actors resident in Scotland.

But there are a lot more who have gone forth, from Ewan McGregor to Denis Lawson, whom theatregoers, and perhaps equally importantly those who are not currently theatregoers, would love to see on the stages of Scotland.

So this production of John Osborne’s epoch-making play, which brings David Tennant, lately of the BBC’s Blackpool but with a string of other television, film, National Theatre and RSC credits, back home, could be seen as something of a preview.

Happily, one’s immediate reaction is that if the new National Theatre is going to do much better than this co- production between the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh and the Theatre Royal in Bath, it is going to have to go some.

Tennant is everything Jimmy Porter needs to be, odious but irresistible, idle but driven, angry but powerless, selfimportant but self-loathing.

Endless energy leaks from every inch of his long, lean, angular frame which he throws like a weapon around Monika Nisbet’s perfect recreation of the Porters’ shabby Midlands bedsit.

Tennant’s performance is matched in the other four parts. Alexandra Moen is particularly fine as Helena, her disdain flipping over into lust.

After the first-act confrontation, their faces inches apart, when she threatens to slap his face in defence of her friend Alison — Jimmy’s wife — and he threatens to slap her right back, there is only one possible destination for their relationship. And, as Alison, Kelly Reilly’s final speech, mourning the loss of her child, broke more than Jimmy’s heart on the first night.

Looking back through the prism of almost half a century at a play which supposedly captured a moment in social history, it is, as many noted of the National Theatre revival five years ago, the human drama rather than the class warfare which now resonates most.

Class has hardly disappeared from the lexicon of British life, of course, nor can one imagine today’s shopping malls or old films on TV assuaging Jimmy’s Sunday afternoon ennui.

But it is that human drama which in Richard Baron’s expertly constructed, naturalistic production makes such a good case for this being a play for all time, not just its own time.


 
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