More in sorrow than in anger

Look Back in Anger Manchester
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The Independent Culture
When Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre scheduled Look Back in Anger for the current winter season, they can scarcely have reckoned on the fact that it's celebrated author, John Osborne, would have died and, indeed, been "outed" in the Evening St andardas an alleged homosexual by the time the production opened.

The programme for Gregory Hersov's powerful, flawed revival carries a double-page spread of excerpts from the obituaries. The majority of these, in praising Look Back in Anger as a ground-breaking work and in honouring Osborne's own non-conformity and rage against indifference, tacitly identify the dramatist with his creation, Jimmy Porter. Given the understandable mood of homage at the moment, it's perhaps no surprise that Hersov's production offers a glamorised view of Jimmy, not withstanding the efforts of the strong supporting cast to prevent the play from turning into a solo turn.

You suspect that this will be the case from the interpolated opening image. Alone and centre-stage, Michael Sheen's superb Jimmy raises a trumpet to his lips and plays a few moody bars of jazz, whereupon the lights turn red and the hot sounds of a full band hit the air. It is a pre-emptive, simplified picture of Jimmy at his own valuation: the romantic rebel-outsider in tune with an alternative world of passionate feeling from which drab post-war England is cut off.

Then, in the play proper, both production and performance go on to emphasise Jimmy as victim at the expense of Jimmy the special pleader. It's not that Sheen disguises what is ugly and simultaneously charismatic and alienating in the hero's irritable, spoiling-for-a-fight outbursts. It's just that there are moments when he communicates such a strong sense of dazed, underlying lostness (especially when he's abandoned at the end of Act 2, Scene I) that you become disinclined to write it off as self-pity.

Despite the criticism levelled at him by the other characters, the play is sentimentally rigged in favour of the hero. After all, the working classes do not have a total monopoly on watching people die, a crucial experience according to Jimmy. True, there's a venomous, wonderfully holier-than-thou glint in Sheen's eyes when he announces his superior credentials regarding this matter, but the actor plays the arrogance so brilliantly from the character's own point of view that you are tempted to think it is justified.

As Jimmy's wife, Alison, Claire Skinner could afford to convey more how this woman uses passivity as a weapon and she seems oddly classless rather than upper-middle-class, a fault not to be found in Hermione Norris' varnished, hard-bitten Helena. DominicRowan, excellent as Cliff, the friendly buffer-zone between the combatants, has developed a jokey, waddling run that nicely communicates the unassuming, helpful equability of the character. Not quite a one-man-band show, then, for all the interpretationand Sheen's quite outstanding Jimmy.

n `Look Back in Anger', Royal Exchange, Manchester (0161-833 9833) to 25 Feb

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