Look Back in Anger, Jermyn Street Theatre, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A black Jimmy Porter? Why not? Most people are at ease now with the principle of colour-blind casting. Jimmy Akingbola is an accomplished actor so why shouldn't he portray John Osborne's archetypal angry young man.

True, there are some plays that turn so much on the question of ethnicity that this policy would be perverse. Akingbola gave an award-winning performance in a revival of Blue/Orange, Joe Penhall's masterpiece about the medical profession's attitude to the relationship between race and mental illness. You wouldn't want a white actor in the role of the patient there.

Do classics of social realism fall into this restrictive category? I think not. The problem with Alexander Gilmour's new production of Look Back in Anger is that it's not colour-blind. I don't doubt that, well-directed, Akingbola could be a terrific Jimmy. But, here he's been put in the position of having to underline the fact that he's black. In this Jimmy's repertoire of vicious vaudeville jeers, there's a subversive parody of a prejudiced impersonation of a West Indian and he lapses into it regularly.

Gilmour has declared that recent revivals of Osborne's mould-breaking play have paid undue attention to its period qualities, with audiences "able to sit too comfortably and almost laugh at these funny people from 50 years ago". But in fact the best modern interpretations have placed the accent on the personal rather than the political, presenting Jimmy less as the voice of a generation than as the product of his own neuroses and highlighting the Strindbergian study of marital conflict.

The director believes that by emphasising that it's a black actor in the central role of the white working class malcontent with the posh wife, his production will be able to reproduce the kind of frisson generated in 1956. In fact, the strategy weakens the intriguing tensions in the piece. How can we believe that this unsubtle Jimmy has a nostalgia for the Edwardian era, represented by the colonel whose elegiac confusion is movingly communicated here by Gary Raymond, the actor who played Cliff in the film adaptation with Richard Burton.

Laura Dos Santos projects the poignancy of Alison but fails to convey her upper-class use of silence as a form of aggression. This is a lack-lustre production that in its misguided attempts to rejuvenate the play ironically leaves it looking more dated than it actually is.

To 18 July (020-7287 2875 )