Theatre: Angry, young, mannered

John Osborne's Look Back in Anger is more than an era-defining play. Like Coward's The Vortex before it, it's become a myth, suffocated under layers of interpretive baggage. But is it any good? By Paul Taylor
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The Independent Culture
In the programme for the National Theatre revival of Look Back in Anger (which opens this Thursday), there is a prominently placed quotation from the preface John Osborne wrote in 1993 for volume one of his Collected Works. "I would ask anyone reading the play for the first time," he exhorts, "to disregard anything they may have heard about it."

It is an injunction which cannot help but sound a mite disingenuous, for to contemplate Look Bank in Anger stripped of the legend of its initial impact is, you'd have reckoned, about as feasible as thinking of Lady Chatterley's Lover shorn of all reference to the Penguin obscenity trial.

The date 8 May, 1956 is one that has the same kind of iconic status in the history of 20th-century drama that 16 June, 1904 - the "Bloomsday" of Joyce's Ulysses - has in the equivalent annals of the novel. In Jimmy Porter's rasping, vituperative eloquence, the under-30s post-war generation famously discovered the accents of its own alienated state and responded - in Kenneth Tynan's words - to the hero's "impulsive, unargued leftishness, his anarchic sense of humour... his suspicion that all the brave causes had either been won or discredited" and that, despite the socialist government under which this group had come of age, the class system was "still mysteriously intact".

The circumstances surrounding the Royal Court premiere are as well known as the distinctive features of the play, with its cramped and dingy provincial setting, its improbably starring role for an ironing board, its downmarket variant of the eternal triangle, and its view of marriage as a continuation of class warfare, pitting the pugilistic, mainly working-class Jimmy against the passive aggression of Alison whose family represents the Establishment.

The sheer romance of this play's progress from much-rejected script to sociological phenomenon of the century (as far as the theatre is concerned) is still intensely seductive. There was Terence Rattigan, emerging from the first night, rashly telling a Daily Express reporter that Osborne was saying: "Look, Ma, I'm not Terence Rattigan." And the Royal Court press officer who, asked for a description of this newcomer, coined the phrase that launched a thousand books and articles - "angry young man"; Kenneth Tynan informing the readers of The Observer that "I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger". To savour such details is, for theatre lovers of a certain vintage, akin to, say, reliving each precious moment of the 1966 World Cup final.

And there can be no denying the play's extraordinary influence, for good and ill. The programme for the new production quotes Dave Hare ("[Osborne's] the gatekeeper. Everyone else comes piling through after") and a host of other dramatists bearing witness to the tremendous sense of liberation imparted by the work's first staging. This year has brought two sizeable reminders of Look Back in Anger's long-range impact. Cheekily claiming kinship through a conspicuously positioned and otherwise somewhat redundant ironing board, The Death of Cool, by the young writer Alan Pollock, aimed to give us a Jimmy Porter de nos jours - in the shape of the hyper-articulate Switch, another study in wasted potential and impotent railing to devoted hangers-on - with the Nineties twist that this character's cynical alienation drives him into masterminding a massive DSS benefits fraud.

Likewise, Osborne's play has been brought back to mind by the Almeida's high-profile revival of David Hare's Plenty starring Cate Blanchett in the female protagonist's voluble disillusion with post-war England (albeit, in her case, as a contrast to the highs of her work as an undercover agent in Nazi-occupied France).

A parallel can also be detected in the sneaking affection both plays show for a representative of the old guard and in a certain shared nostalgia for codes now seen to be suspect. In Anger, there's a sympathetic depiction of Alison's Colonel father: "A sturdy old plant left over from the Edwardian wilderness that can't understand why the sun isn't shining anymore." In Plenty, more ambiguously, there is the figure of the ambassador who resigns when he discovers that the government misled him into believing that he was telling the truth in denying Britain's involvement in Suez.

Look Back in Anger is, of course, not the only play to have caused a sensation by the uncanny way it caught the mood of the moment. "The theatre was like a madhouse: rolling eyeballs, clenched fists... Complete strangers fell sobbing into each other's arms, women staggered almost fainting to the door. It was a general state of disillusion, like a chaos from whose mists a new creation is breaking forth": clearly, no one can complain of audience apathy at the first performances in 1782 of Schiller's The Robbers, begun when the author was only 19 and creative standard-bearer of the authority- defying spirit that, seven years later, would animate the French Revolution.

Or, closer to home, there was the precedent - in the resourceful seizing on publicity to create a near-instant myth of Noel Coward's The Vortex, a huge succes de scandale in 1924 with its depiction of a hedonistic post-war world of drug abuse and liaisons between older women and handsome young guards officers.

Plays which have the luck and the intuition to say just the right thing at just the right time tend to pay a stiffish price for the glamorous tumult of their starting life. Checking out what can have caused all the fuss, posterity is apt to be puzzled by the disproportion between the prestige of the work and its actual dramatic quality. Authors, if they are still around, retaliate by claiming that people can not see the palpable hit for the myth. In the same preface where he enjoined readers to "disregard anything they may have heard about Look Back in Anger", Osborne complained of the textbook legend that has "served to draw attention to the piece as an historical phenomenon, while the play itself is passed over under the weight of perpetuated misinterpretation".

If his aim was to make us concentrate on the work as drama rather than as an event, it has to be said that Osborne's tactics were not a little perverse. Just a year before he penned that preface, the West End had witnessed the extraordinary phenomenon of Deja vu, his sequel to Anger, which catches up with Jimmy in grizzled middle age and in the unexpected comfort of his Midlands mansion. Full of distorted echoes of its predecessor (starry ironing board, Sunday papers, females named Alison and Eleanor), the piece keeps giving you the weird, fleeting and calculated feeling that when Jimmy and his Welsh friend Cliff reminisce about the past, they are conscious that they were characters in a legendary play. "I'm accustomed to the banging of uptipped seats," declares Jimmy, who also notes that he has entered history through coining the phrase "posh papers", and who plangently responds to the routine critical objection to his 1956-mark self: "What's he angry about?"

As a way of routing the nay-sayers and liberating Look Back in Anger from its warping myth, Deja vu is quite ingeniously counterproductive. To take just a couple of examples. Osborne in that preface is keen to counter the notion that the Jimmy of 1956 is a monologueing one-man band and argues that Alison is the more deadly bully in her goading silence and withdrawal. But the Jimmy of Deja vu is like a parody of this alleged misperception, his voice so dominant that whenever he leaves the room Cliff starts to sound like him, and so indistinguishable from his creator's tones that you feel the play should have been called, with apologies to Jeffrey Bernard, John Osborne is Unwell.

And the indiscriminateness of the targets in Deja vu (everything from child abuse experts to the "mob philanthropy" of Band Aid) is of no help to anyone wishing to contradict the view that Fifties Jimmy was fortunate to be taken for the voice of his generation, as opposed to a railing emotional fascist for all seasons.

The odds against it are, therefore, high, but with a strong cast and the superb Michael Sheen in the central role, it will be fascinating to see if this National revival succeeds in giving us, for once, a Look Back in Anger that out-soars its myth instead of firmly depending on it.

`Look Back in Anger' opens on Thursday. For booking information, call 0171-452 3000