Look Back In Anger was written by John Osborne in 1957. It was considered the first of the anti-drawing room plays and introduced to the stage the “angry young man.” Fifty five years later, he is still quite angry. The play has been produced recently at home (London) and abroad, it has also been made into a film. This Roundabout Theatre production directed by Sam Gold is a four character interpretation of the play.
Jimmy (Matthew Rhys) a working class university graduate is married to Alison (Sarah Goldberg) the daughter of a colonel. Jimmy runs a sweets stall with Cliff (Adam Driver) who also lives with the couple. Later they are joined by Alison’s actress friend from childhood, Helena (Charlotte Parry.) The fifth character, the most prominent of players, is the set. The stage at the Laura Pels is reduced to a depth of six feet. It is the bleakest and filthiest of sets you are likely to ever see. Dishes, laundry, trash, and food litter the floor and a stained mattress is propped in a corner. The filth only grows as the play progresses. The (relatively) tiny stage and the use of a lit “offstage” work to reinforce the utter claustrophobia of the characters’ lives. Having the actors sit on the aisle (on the edge of the audience) is not distracting but it also does not add anything. It is just one device that is employed to add elements of realness and rawness to this production.
Jimmy is a character you have seen portrayed often. He is filled with self-loathing and expresses it through verbal abuse and absolute derision for those he loves. He is above all else, a victim. His regal looking wife Alison spends much of the first act in an open dressing gown, half-slip and bra. She dutifully irons her husband’s underwear as he hurtles insults her way. To avoid boredom, Jimmy also goes after Cliff, often physically. While these goings on are certainly tedious, the performances are riveting. The actors are so thoroughly immersed in their characters it is impossible to remember their past performances (of which I’ve seen several.) There is a comfort with their characters which is rarely seen. This is a very physical play, with much wrestling (fight direction by Thomas Schall) in a very small space. Not once, did any of the tousling look staged. There is also much silliness, mostly in the form of animal imitations, which would look forced and moderately humiliating in lesser hands.
Helena arrives later in the play, looking groomed and radiant and reminding us that not everyone lives amidst such squalor. Discovering the way in which her friend is living and taking into consideration Alison’s yet to be announced pregnancy, she arranges to send Alison back to her family. I have to admit that I did not see that coming. I wasn’t necessarily hoping for Alison to stay with Jimmy, I’m just not sure of her motivation to leave. Needless to say, Helena and Jimmy start up an affair. I say “needless to say” from a theatrical perspective, not a psychological one. It’s not clear what either of these women see in Jimmy. Now if they had fallen for his friend Cliff, I could understand. Cliff is the only sympathetic character around. He is loving and filled with an inexplicable optimism.
The house lights are used throughout the production to create mood, or anti-mood as the case may be. Both acts begin with full house lights. There are several minutes of silent action that occur fully lit. The effect is lost on an audience who would rather talk amongst themselves. Call it Pavlovian, but the full house simply would not silence until they were plunged into darkness. Their talking was actually less distracting than was my empathy for actors being ignored. The curtain-less (does anyone use curtains anymore?) six foot deep stage feels like a thrust, and the fully lit “wings” add to the intimacy. I found so much full lighting and lack of “off-stage” just a wee bit distracting. The acting really speaks for itself here.
The staging itself is beautiful, as is the acting, but the play simply left me cold. While Cliff is a most sympathetic character, nothing much happens to him. As the play came to a close, the previously excruciatingly well behaved woman seated next to me started to rustle in her purse. I could not discern what in the world she would be doing, until she brought a tissue to her nose. “Oh,” I thought, “she has a cold.” No. She was crying. Did something sad happen? Now, I am not made of stone. I have been known to well up over curtain calls. But I found nothing particularly moving about these characters, or their lives. I had a bit of trouble believing that anyone would actually make a salad while sitting on the floor and toss the unused bits around the floor. If the play was making the leap into surrealism, I would have been fine. But clearly the claim to fame for this particular play and production is its realism. However, I would see it again for the performances alone.