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Look Back in Anger

Jules van Cruysen



By John Osborne Directed by Miranda Harcourt Bats 6 – 22 July
In 1956 Look Back in Anger revolutionized British Theatre – if you have seen any of the publicity material or media coverage surrounding the play you already know that. But is it still relevant fifty years on? In short, yes. But in a radically different way than it was when it was first conceived.
The play is set in those restless hours of late Sunday afternoon, no good for anything but doing the ironing, reading the paper and drinking tea. And in 1956 the portrayal of this sort of mundane, educated but working class life on stage was invisible in Britain, it just didn’t happen. Audiences were more used to seeing society ladies gnawing on cucumber sandwiches (something that Jimmy the fiery protagonist parodies) than anything resembling a real life.
Look Back in Anger relies almost entirely on the cast. Aaron Alexander plays Jimmy, a charismatic, cruel and almost disgusting character who needlessly and malevolently attacks his wife and best friend throughout the play. He is the archetypal ‘angry young man’. He is a beautifully flawed character, one for whom the audience sympathizes with and understands. He is intelligent and sharp but is engaged in a constant battle to undermine himself. Alexander’s portrayal of Jimmy is excellent, and like the rest of the cast his performance is both well devised and well executed. Alison comments that he was born out of his time (and that he should have lived in a more revolutionary age – the French Revolution is touted) but he would have also been equally well placed in the equally romantic, revolutionary and experimental late-sixties, had he been living now though his character would be in the same despondent predicament.
Mia Blake plays his battered wife Alison with a beautifully dark tenderness. Her performance is subtle and she uses nonverbal communication as a contrast to the hyper-verbal communication of Jimmy. Her character is full of contradictions: she is battered but refuses to play the game and loves Jimmy desperately (he is undeniably loveable in a maniacal sort of way) yet is prepared to say no to him, even unreasonably.
The keystone of the performance is Cliff, played by Louis Sutherland. Cliff is the proverbial gentle giant and the hands of a Samoan actor bring a unique take to the Welsh character. He is the emotional rock of the unique little family and provides a symbol of strength and courage for the audience. Jimmy continually berates him (for no apparent reason) about how stupid he is yet he remains loyal to Jimmy both out of love and out of duty, even after Alison leaves.
Lucy Wigmore plays Helena, Alison’s longtime friend and confidant. She is a complete contrast to Jimmy’s ‘working class hero’ and detests both his origins and his manner and is equally and unfairly dismissive of the gentle Cliff. She arrives on a temporary basis and devises a plan to emancipate Alison and pays the price for it in an almost clichéd change of circumstances.
The script of Look Back in Anger is a gem of modern theatre. The characters are real people who are filled with contradiction. Profoundly, all of the characters are both extremely weak and extremely strong. The dialogue is realistic in that I could almost see those characters duking it out in real life. Look Back in Anger is an intense play but the use of two short intervals (both after about forty minutes and both barely enough to go to the loo, buy a drink, or smoke a cigarette – let alone all three) was refreshing and a brilliant way for the audience to maintain momentum.
The set of Look Back in Anger is unique and makes wonderful use of the equally unique Bats ecosystem. The living room (where the majority of the action takes place) is an island of carpet in the centre of the stage with audience on three sides, the stage doors linking it to another piece of stage representing other parts of the flat and muffled voices from the foyer being those from other parts of the building. Likewise, the costumes designed by Zoë Fox are magnificently true to 1950’s Britain and delicately enhance the audience’s experience.
I very really comment on technical aspects like lighting, but with Look Back in Anger I feel compelled to, designed by Martyn Roberts it amplified the experience of the play considerably but at times was not quite in perspective and made what was supposed to be a cramped flat occasionally look expansive.
Look Back in Anger jars us as a society into realizing that in fifty years we haven’t changed all that much. This is a chilling thought.