“What kind of man are you?”
Where else to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Look Back in Anger than in the city where it is set, and in the very theatre where the marriage between John Osborne and Pamela Lane came under such strain as to inspire the turbulence of the play that, as conventional wisdom would have it, changed the face of British theatre. Recently, the play has been rarely seen, suffering from the very thing that brought its fame – ever-evolving theatrical tastes – but Sarah Brigham’s production makes it feel startlingly pertinent.
The archetypal angry young man, decidedly working class but university educated Jimmy Porter finds himself raging against every aspect of his life in 1956 Derby. The huge social gulf that marks his marriage to the upper middle class Alison, her haughty friend Helena who’s coming to stay, the cramped flat which they share with pal Cliff and the politics they debate ferociously, the music on the radio that isn’t his beloved jazz… And as his frustrations take on an ever more vicious turn, a love triangle emerges that shatters what fragile peace there is.
As a newcomer to Look Back in Anger, I was surprised at just how vital it felt. Jimmy’s hang-ups about class could be considered a factor that dates the play but certainly not fatally, and it crackles with life in the way that Osborne explores love and sex in marriage, the way in which both men and women seek to exploit and engineer power dynamics to secure their own ends, be that mutual happiness or mutually assured devastation. And the sense of living in a nation crippled by the actions of a perversely-minded establishment is one that remains sadly relevant today.
Brigham feels very much alive to these nuances and so cultivates a sense of the almost abstract in collaboration with Neil Irish’s design, open-plan domestic life suspended in a metaphysical space. The rumbles of Ivan Stott’s soundscape remind us of the lives going on all around them and Arnim Friess’ lighting undulates beautifully, softening in the more sensitive moments to really draw us in. And the cast of five discharge their roles well.
Patrick Knowles’ Jimmy is a force of nature but an undoubted tormented soul with it, unable to deal with a world that for him, is both changing too much and not changing at all. Augustina Seymour’s Alison strikes an interesting position as his wife, a suggestion of her own closeness to Cliff complicating the picture as much as her own rebellion against her family and in some ways, hurt and anger seems as a good a bond as any for this pair. Jimmy Fairhurst’s Cliff and Daisy Badger’s Helena are also both well played, as it Stott’s brief cameo as Alison’s father.
Done as well as it is here, in this co-production with Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, it’s hard to imagine Look Back in Anger slipping out of fashion but equally, one can see how easily it could be done badly. Thus it’s a mark of the strength and importance of Derby Theatre’s output, particularly with its sparkling companion piece Jinny playing alongside it, that it makes this modern classic work so well.