First Night: Furious young man roars his way to our sympathy

`Look Back in Anger'

National Theatre

London

THE CASE for the defence is that John Osborne's notorious 1956 debut Look Back in Anger provided a mouthpiece for a generation and class hitherto unheard in British theatre. The prosecution, meanwhile, argues that it is a play with too much ironing and not enough irony.

The last time London got to take the play's temperature, the excitement surrounding the casting of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson obscured the question of whether or not the play has stood the test of time but this triumphant National Theatre revival banishes all doubts.

The problem about looking back - whether in angora or anguish - is that everyone claims 20/20 hindsight. Faced with Osborne's rampant misogyny, it would have been easy to try to soft pedal the loudly expressed views of women in order to make the play palatable to a Nineties audience. But Gregory Hersov refuses to countenance distorting the difficult balance of the writing. Instead, he carefully shifts the focus of the splenetic writing away from its effect and forces us to consider the causes. This now seems far less a political play than a personal one.

Instead of adopting the all-too-prevalent habit of driving the actors to demonstrate directorial ideas, Hersov adopts the strangely unfashionable technique of allowing the text to speak through his actors. 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?

The character of "angry young man" Jimmy Porter, educated but earning his keep running a sweet stall, is a quivering mass of ill-defined rage, his fury so intense but generalised that he is rendered almost impotent. In most productions, faced with Jimmy's impassioned but ever more exasperating tirades, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand why Alison, his upper-class wife stationed semi-permanently behind the iconic ironing- board, 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.

Sheen has cornered the market in explosive energy, but this thrilling performance is his finest yet. As a character he roars, rants and whimpers, his self-disgust pouring off him like sweat, but as an actor he is completely relaxed, which makes him magnetic to watch. At one point, Alison (perfectly pitched by Emma Fielding) accuses him of being a child. Not only does the sentiment ring shockingly true, but the comment acts like a jump lead.

"Don't patronise me," he cries and suddenly you understand both his terrible neediness and the appeal of that neediness to others. That childlike quality also helps Helena's seduction of him. Looking like a well-bred gazelle, Matilda Ziegler finds far more to play than the traditional posh girl falling for a bit of rough.

All in all, this perfectly paced production is nothing short of a revelation.

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