For a long time, the enduring popularity of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which premiered in 1956, has baffled me.
I realise that the play has historical significance and that it is meant to have revolutionised British theatre, ostensibly by shifting the active scene from the drawing-room to the kitchen, thus throwing the door open, as it were, to a whole other setting for the domestic spectacle.
The play tells the story of an angry man called Jimmy Porter. He lives in a rundown flat in some anonymous rundown Midlands town with his wife Alison and his best friend Cliff. It’s the fifties and his life has hit dead-end. His wife comes from a well-to-do military family who are hostile to their daughter’s choice of husband and refuse to support her. Porter spends most of his time baiting and inveighing against his wife and her family, lamenting the weakness of her character while Cliff tries vainly to play peacemaker. It’s an unsustainable situation and when Alison’s friend Helena comes to stay things are turned upside down.
It has some great lines and some devastating speeches. And it has themes which are no doubt still relevant. But the themes no longer emerge in an affective way. Back in the fifties and sixties, the play made an impact through the harshness of its realism and its taboo-busting treatment of a range of subjects from marriage to jazz. But we’ve now had more than twenty years of kitchen sink drama. That kind of gritty realism has lost its edge.
And so has the play. Which is why I’m wasn’t sure why a talented bunch of young turks like The Millinery were presenting it.
But they do it well. Tosh Greenslade as Jimmy Porter carries himself like a young man who can feel the blood itching in his veins, and his perpetual smirk is spot on. Lauren Smith as Alison and Daniel Niceski as Cliff are wonderfully tender together, neatly setting off Jimmy’s sprawling rants.
Meanwhile, Kassandra Whiton as Helena is calm and dignified, not at all a flustered caricature of upper-class cluelessness. It's a performance which I think intelligently articulates exactly why this is such an enduring play: it is a very well-made play.
Rather than its power to “shock”, I think perhaps it is the classical aspect of Look Back which makes it enduring. It has the seeming of one of those perfect epigrams that sum a person up in two lines. And the tragedy of Look Back, one which I felt strongly during The Millinery’s production, is that his character can be summed up or encapsulated in this calm way.