The Royal Court held a gala celebration on 6 May to mark the 50th anniversary of the legendary first night of John Osborne's ground-breaking drama. But the theatre, the dramatist's alma mater, curiously declined to commemorate the play's (and its own) half century with a full production and run of Look Back in Anger. That job has been left to the Peter Hall Company which, in Bath, has mounted Peter Gill's splendid new production. Better than any revival of Look Back in Anger that I've seen, this absorbing account makes you hang in a state of rapt expectancy on every scalding or scalded word.
It does rich justice to the fact that the piece manages to be many things at the same time - a dissection of a new social phenomenon (Jimmy Porter, product of the 1944 Education Act, caught in limbo between the class he's left and the class that won't accept him); a Strindbergian marriage play; a strange kitchen-sink counterpart to Waiting for Godot (in all that frustrated hanging around and hints of time-killing music- hall routine; and a keen insight into Osborne's troubled psyche.
The production's most striking innovation is the almost dream-like subjective feel it gives to some of the sequences through lighting changes and an evocative soundscape. The moody wail of a distant jazz trumpet underscores Jimmy's lengthy tirades. The Colonel's reminiscences of India are accompanied by the ghostly bugle of his battalion band and the sound of steam trains. There's a strong sense at such moments of people trapped by nostalgia, soliloquising in their several solitudes.
This approach does not significantly detract from the drama of marital warfare. True, Mary Stockley's moving Alison could afford to emphasise more the passive-aggression in her stance behind the ironing board. But Richard Coyle is superb as Jimmy, a brooding sexy mix of bolshie mischief and angry hurt who would leave most women confused as to whether they wanted to slap, screw or mother him. As he puffs his pipe listening to Vaughan Williams, you also see sly glimpses of the reactionary buffer he'll become. And Rachael Stirling is excellent as a rather camp, mannish, unconsciously machiavellian Helena, who seems to be acting in her own interest as well as Alison's when she arranges the latter's escape with daddy.
I hope that London will get to see a production that does Osborne proud.
To 2 September (01225 448 844)
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