Theatre: Look back in triumph

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The Independent Culture
THE CASE for the defence is that John Osborne's notorious 1956 debut provided a mouthpiece for a generation and class hitherto unheard in British theatre. The prosecution argues that it's a play with too much ironing and not enough irony. Yet this stunningly persuasive production even wins over naysayers like myself. The verdict? A triumph.

For a director, the problem about looking back is that everyone claims 20/20 hindsight. Faced with Osborne's rampant misogyny, it would have been easy to soft pedal the loudly expressed views of women to make the play palatable to a Nineties audience. But Gregory Hersov refuses to distort the difficult balance of the still shockingly energised writing. Instead, he carefully shifts the focus of the splenetic outbursts away from the effects and forces us to consider the causes. This now seems far less a political play than a personal one.

Hersov adopts the strangely unfashionable technique of allowing the text to speak through his uniformly excellent cast. Thus the emotional content, the passion, love and fear all fall naturally into place and the result is simply gripping, like an eerie pre-echo of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. "Angry young man" Jimmy Porter, educated but earning his keep running a sweet stall, is an unstoppable mass of rage, his fury so intense but generalised that he's rendered almost impotent.

In most productions, faced with Jimmy's tirades, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand why Alison, his upper-class wife, and his best friend Cliff, continue to live with a man with such a plate of chips on his shoulder. But, miraculously, Michael Sheen makes Jimmy sympathetic. In character, he roars, rants and whimpers at a thrillingly dangerous level, his self-disgust pouring off him like sweat; as an actor he is completely relaxed, which makes him utterly compelling.

At one point, Alison (a perfectly pitched Emma Fielding) accuses him of being a child. The sentiment rings shockingly true, but the line also acts like a jump lead. "Don't patronise me," he yelps, and you suddenly understand both his terrible neediness and, most importantly, the appeal of that neediness to others.

That childlike quality also helps Helena's seduction of him. Looking like a well-bred gazelle, the marvellously controlled Matilda Ziegler plays far more than the usual posh girl falling for a bit of rough, while Alison's stuffy father (William Gaunt) also blooms into a fully rounded character, rather than a pawn in an analysis of class.

The unexpected humour and Osborne's romantic view of the youthful addiction to suffering ring so true that even the play's sentimental coda works, thanks to a tiny, infinitely subtle injection of irony. A fitting end to Hersov's perfectly paced, revelatory production.

David Benedict

In rep (bookings, 0171-452 3000)