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Look Back in Anger
Published on Friday, 19 August 2011

4 stars

C venues - C soco (venue website)
3-14, 16-29 Aug, 7:10pm-8:30pm
Reviewed by Carmel Doohan

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

And there is the famous ironing board. The legendary ironing board that had 1956 Royal Court audiences gasping, so shocked were they that such a mundane object could reach their stage. Around it, a cramped Midlands flat where Jimmy, Alison and their flatmate Cliff live is recreated in perfect period detail.

When first staged, John Osborne's play caused commotion that went far beyond its props; taking theatre out of bourgeoisie drawing rooms, and compelling audiences to witness the struggle of ordinary people. Jimmy was the first of the 'angry young men' bringing 'kitchen sink drama' to the theatre-going elite. In this subtle and powerful SJC production, these themes ring out with continued relevance.

Solid, warm-hearted Cliff is beautifully cast, his gentle Welsh platitudes keeping the erratic streams of Jimmy's (un)consciousness grounded. On the day I attended, Jimmy was played by an understudy, who was not so sure-footed; he stumbled as he ranted, and his lines sometimes come across as learnt, rather than ideas tumbling from Jimmy's head.

But the female characters are mesmerising. Helena perches languorously on the arms of chairs, at once brave, self-assured and cowardly. Alison pulls off the difficult trick of being completely closed while still conveying torment beneath her calm. As a woman using icy silence and apathy to defend herself, she is moving and believable.

The pace is relentless: as soon as we reach a place that clarifies where moralities and allegiances lie, the dialogue swerves and certainties are again scattered. The cast allow the characters to remain ambiguous, creating a depth that makes their contradictions credible. When Alison and Jimmy play rabbits and bears, a scene which could easily be cloying or sentimental feels authentic. The sudden ease with which Alison forgives her husband and joins him in their secret game works, and swapping from bitter recrimination to convincing passion with such speed takes some acting.

In his review of the first ever production, Robert Wright said “He obviously wants to shake us into thinking, but we are never quite clear what it is he wants us to think about.” Jimmy is both hero and anti-hero. He rails against the pettiness and moral cowardice of those who have not suffered as he has, but refuses as a matter of honour to accept any kind of understanding. Although enraged by the injustice around him, he does nothing more than rant about it in wildly unfocused circles, abusing his wife out of a desire to communicate and trying to force empathy from those close to him by making them suffer with him.

Despite the autobiographical nature of the material and Jimmy's political diatribes, this play cannot be reduced to a moral or message. Whether we like them or not, all the characters are rich and fully formed; moments of strength and deep insight follow acts of cruelty or cowardice, making us unable to condemn them. The ending remains impossible to decipher; has Alison been redeemed by suffering and the knowledge it brings, or trapped in the cycle of destruction it perpetuates? It is still impossible to know who to root for, even after fifty years.

This is an updated version of this review, published at 10pm on 20 August. This update clarifies that the actor playing Joey was an understudy, after we were advised of this fact by the performing company.

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