Theatre: Still angry after half a century
Thursday 03 February 2005
Royal Lyceum Theatre
HOW SHOULD we look back now on John Osborne's mould-breaking Fifties drama, ? With gratitude to non-iron shirts, which have relieved wives of the tedium of the thankless task of ironing, and to women's lib for making it possible for men to steam ahead with the smoothing iron? With relief that now, even in dreary Derby on a drab Sunday, there's something for people to do apart from ironing, drinking endless cups of tea and dissing the predictable views of the Sunday papers? With disgust for a husband who so patronises his wife that he wishes he could watch her experience the tragedy of losing a child in order to become "a recognisable human being"?
However much attitudes may have changed in the half- century since Osborne's voice raged - arousing cheers, controversy and contempt - his heavily autobiographical play is still gripping in its awful intensity and sheer provocativeness. Played by a cast as good as that assembled by the Royal Lyceum, burgeoning under the artistic direction of Mark Thompson, the details of Jimmy and Alison Porter's painfully edgy marriage hit home with the precision of a marksman in Richard Baron's production.
Cooped up in their dismal attic bedsit, like the animals (bear and squirrel) into whose personalities they periodically escape, the Porters are brought brilliantly to hellish life by David Tennant (soon to star in the new Harry Potter film) and Kelly Reilly, whose forthcoming appearances in four films, alongside the likes of Dame Judi Dench and Audrey Tautou, have made her very hot property indeed. Tennant's rants may have a coruscating effect on the audience, but Reilly's apparent indifference, her loud silence and her detached body-language suggest another story. Is she numbed into passivity by his misogynistic bullying? Or exhausted by her claustrophobic existence, cooped up with such a brittle bundle of seething energy and radical opinions?
Tennant treats Trevor Coe's realistic set like a gym, working out his frustrations as he jumps, perches and runs around in circles, his movements as feverish as his mind and as spiky as his tongue. But there's a sensitive side to his portrayal, too - a touching vulnerability as he recounts his presence at two deathbeds, and traces of the charismatic charm that make him irresistibly attractive.
Reilly brings a hypnotic grace to the role of Alison, finding her own passive path to survival in the jungle of their relationship, until the arrival of her friend Helena (Alexandra Moen), representing the era of repertory theatre that Osborne's work changed irrevocably. She blows the whistle, summons Daddy (a remarkably sympathetic Gareth Thomas), and crosses the floor in this game of sexual politics.
There is good work, too, from Steven McNicoll as their flatmate Cliff, who negotiates his way through the eruptions fizzing around him and, occasionally, sweeping him along, as in the variety-style number into which Jimmy and Cliff seamlessly slip.
The imagery and language have travelled surprisingly well through time, even Jimmy's fascination with jazz trumpet, his pipe-smoking, his disillusion with stale politics, the fusty establishment and rigid authority. But Baron also brings out the humour, tempering the incoherence of Jimmy's raging and the bewildering placidity of Alison's unresponsiveness.
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