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John Osborne: Looking back at the genesis of genius

A revival of John Osborne's long-lost first play shows flashes of the anger that made his name, says Michael Coveney

Almost exactly six years before his Look Back in Anger opened in May 1956 and torpedoed the cultural apathy of British theatre, John Osborne sat holding hands with his married lover in the Theatre Royal, Huddersfield, watching the first performance of his first play, The Devil Inside Him.

This week in Cardiff, the newly formed National Theatre Wales is presenting that play once again, two years after the unpublished manuscript was discovered (having been long presumed lost) in the archives of the Lord Chamberlain, who censored and licensed plays for performance until his office was rubbed out, partly thanks to Osborne, in 1968.

The rediscovery gives a whole new twist to the legend of Jimmy Porter in Look Back, Osborne's voice of scabrous, critical disillusionment. Like Jimmy, Huw Prosser in The Devil Inside Him works in a shop and cries out in deep frustration at being made to live through learning how to hate.

We know how much Osborne loathed his mother, but he was deeply sentimental about his father, who was born in Newport, and who had died when he was just 10. So a Welsh production of Osborne's first play seems fitting: it's set in a small village 40 miles from Swansea.

Huw Prosser is lonely, weird, deformed and writing poetry in a Methodist household reeking of repression: "We are here to resist our impulses," says his father. Huw's bugged, too, by the local vicar, who tries to expel the devil from him.

There's a clear line, therefore, running from Huw to Jimmy via the failed actor/dramatist George Dillon in the play that immediately pre-dates Look Back, Epitaph for George Dillon. In Osborne's case, this struggle to find your voice in an unsympathetic theatre, something all new writers have to go through, is particularly potent.

For The Devil Inside Him belongs firmly in the old weekly rep tradition that Osborne knew as an actor and lowly stage manager – he'd been touring in rep since 1948, when he was just 19 – while also leaning towards the European existentialism of Kierkegaard, Camus and Sartre.

There are stock characters, and crude plot developments, but the play is transformed by Osborne's coruscating attack on moralising Christianity and by his hero's assault on the flirtatious local girl who wants to seduce him, framing him as a rapist and father of her unborn child.

His fate sealed, Huw is somehow victorious in defeat: "Before, I could live but I didn't understand. I understand now, but I can't live. Still, most people live all their years and never understand. Perhaps I'm lucky."

Osborne had begun writing the play while on tour in Sunderland; he was a production dogsbody on a tour of No Room at the Inn by Joan Temple. An actress 12 years his senior, Stella Linden, joined the company. They fell in love. The affair was consummated in Llandudno, with Osborne marking the occasion in a pair of yellow poplin pyjamas. Stella's husband, a homosexual producer called Patrick Desmond, promised to produce The Devil Inside Him if Osborne allowed Stella to advise him on the play's structure; she also added a few jokes.

After that one-week run in Huddersfield, the play vanished. And then, in 1962, Desmond produced it once more in Croydon. The play was re-named "Cry for Love" and Osborne, now the most successful playwright in Britain, hid behind a nom de plume, "Robert Owen". One critic hailed Owen as "a dramatist of great potential of whom we ought to be hearing a great deal more in the future."

In Cardiff, the play takes time to get going. But there's a powerful performance from Jamie Ballard as the medical student who sides with Huw, and a physically wired, deeply affecting one from Iwan Rheon as Huw himself. Osborne has, almost literally, come home and started again.

'The Devil Inside Him', to 15 May, New Theatre, Cardiff ( Newtheatrecardiff.co.uk)