White Bear Theatre, London – until 14 March 2020
Jimmy Porter is the Heathcliff of kitchen sink drama. Dark, sexy, harsh, demanding, cruel; his vicious turns of phrase delivered in poetic flourishes, excite and repel in equal measure. His wife, Alison, spends the first half of Look Back in Anger at the ironing board. She’s his main target. We can almost see her spirit being trampled into the dirty carpet beneath her.
In the little flat the couple share with Jimmy’s friend Cliff, weekends are torture. The men fight over the newspapers while Alison washes, irons, cleans, and cooks. Her gentle middle-class refinement represents everything that Jimmy is not, and everything that stands in the way of intelligent working-class men making a success of their lives in post-war Britain. Alison is imbued with a sense of place and value that Jimmy will never know. As both Chief Witness and Judge, he tries society and finds it wanting. He tries his wife and finds her wanting. He tries himself and finds himself wanting.
John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, written in 1956, is a seminal work that could have real resonance today, but some of the most important lines have been cut from the new production at the White Bear Theatre. The rants about the role of men have gone. The rants against the Church have gone. The rants about America have gone. The rants about social class – which are the only ones left in – don’t make sense without the context within which class matters.
At a time when gaslighting and the abuse of women is high on the agenda, Look Back in Anger could be an excellent study in the historic triggers. At a time when religion is fighting for a comeback, where political uncertainty is peaking, where the divide between rich and poor is greater than ever, it could be an excellent study of the social factors that underpin male anger and male violence. Far more thought should have gone into the editing.
Having said that, there is still a lot of good in this production of Look Back in Anger by Sebastian Palka. There are excellent performances from Rowan Douglas as Alison and Aaron Bennett as Cliff. James Fawcett tries to bring Jimmy alive but struggles without a full context. Jimmy’s vituperation is reduced to peeved schoolboy dribble rather than a charismatic vomit of polemic that seizes the imagination and makes us fully understand why Alison, and later her friend Helen (Holly Hinton) love him despite his best efforts to isolate himself and them.