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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
films
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital