Look Back In Anger – Gate Theatre – Review by Frank L.
Photos by Luca Truffarelli
Look Back in Anger was written by John Osborne in 1956. He was then 26 years old. The play premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. It took London by storm and became one of the defining works of theatre of the decade. It was revolutionary in its time, defining a new generation of ‘angry young men’. When you consider the major playwrights of the time were Noel Coward (Nude with Violin – 1956) and Terence Rattigan (The Deep Blue Sea – 1952) this play was a major step away from the decorum that was frequently represented on stage. Gone was the stiff upper lip of post-war Britain to be replaced with something far grittier. As Alan Sillitoe said Osborne “didn’t contribute to British theatre, he set off a landmine and blew most of it up”. The story, not surprisingly given Osborne’s age, has large autobiographical elements and was based around Osborne’s failing marriage with Pamela Lane. Many of the events of the play are reflected by those in Osborne’s own life.
The play is set in a one bedroom attic conversion flat in the English Midlands where Jimmy Porter (Ian Toner) lives with his young wife Alison (Clare Dunne). Despite the intimacy of their surroundings, one of their housemates Cliff Lewis (Lloyd Cooney) is a frequent visitor who spends large amounts of time in their flat. He serves as a peacekeeper to a large extent, diffusing the confrontational scenarios in which Jimmy constantly tries to provoke with Alison. When Alison’s friend Helena (Vanessa Emme) arrives to stay, it seems to cause the arguments to become more destructive leading to an inevitable explosion.
What is obvious right from the start of the production is that this is no traditional performance of the play. The walls of the theatre are exposed with no wings for the actors to disappear into. They are constantly visible on stage and lurk in the half-light backstage when not required on the set. The stage directions are often read aloud from a script, with the actors sometimes not performing as read. These metatheatrical devices are used frequently to varying degrees of success. It is likely to split the audience but it does make for an inventive and unique performance. The play is now 60 years old and it is impossible for a modern audience to appreciate how inventive and revolutionary it was in its original production. The elements of metatheatre may serve to give a flavour of this creativity.
There are some small diversions from the original text in relation to the characters in that Cliff Lewis has become Irish when as his name would imply he was originally Welsh. At other times the characters speak directly to the audience as if appealing for their goodwill or sympathy. It all ensures that the audience is kept alert as this unhappy quartet live their far from glamorous lives.
The role of Jimmy Porter is critical to the plot and Toner as the play proceeded became more credible as the ogre that Jimmy is. Alison, by breeding is no match for her husband’s social aggressiveness, means it is difficult to understand initially how she married Porter. Dunne had the difficult task of conveying herself as the selfless wife but she became much more confident as she begins to assert Alison’s more independent character as the play progresses. Vanessa Emme has also to move through several gears during the play as Helena. She too was more convincing when she was no longer the po-faced friend of Alison but showed the substance that underlay her outward appearance. Cliff has not a bad bone in his body and Lloyd Cooney played him as a gregarious and well-meaning soul caught up in the madness.
In the sixty years since the play was written social attitudes have changed but in certain respects Look Back in Anger is on the button. Jimmy Porter remains a fine example of a misogynistic male. While social barriers between the classes in Britain are still relevant they are somewhat different nowadays than those portrayed by Osborne. That said the play retains its ability to grip its audience and the entire team at the Gate have given it a fine airing for an Irish audience. Given its importance in the history of the stage it is well worth a visit.
Cast & Crew
Cast Includes: Lloyd Cooney, Clare Dunne, Vanessa Emme & Ian Toner
Director: Annabelle Comyn
Set Designer: Paul O’Mahony
Costume Designer: Sarah Bacon
Lighting Designer: Chahine Yavroyan
Sound Designer: Tom Lane
Assistant Director: Jack Reardon