Osborne’s seminal 1956 play Look Back in Anger marked a cultural turning point in British theatre. The
autobiographical work was the first of its kind, a departure away from the
drawing room dramas of the upper classes. It shed a harsh light on the “angry
young men” of the post-War generation, discontented working-class youth who
were educated but lacked purpose. As Jimmy Porter, the belligerent young man
central to Osborne’s drama, laments, “There aren't any good, brave causes
the Roundabout Theatre’s revival, now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre,
Matthew Rhys stars as Jimmy, who works in a sweet shop and shares a flat in the
English Midlands with his wife Alison (Sarah Goldberg) and his Welsh friend
Cliff Lewis (Adam Driver). Sundays are spent reading newspapers, ranting against
social injustices, and berating his upper middle class wife for her snobby
family and her cold demeanor. Although educated, Jimmy can’t escape the
restrictions placed upon him by his class. Feeling trapped, he rages against
those closest to him, perhaps hoping that by inflicting pain, they will share
in his alienation and misery. The set (designed by Andrew Lieberman) is a
literal interpretation of a line in the play that calls the apartment “a very
narrow strip of plain hell” and is an obvious attempt to heighten the
claustrophobic atmosphere the characters live in. Confined to the scant few
feet at the edge of the stage and walled in at the proscenium, the all-black
space is littered with trash, filth and clutter.
Jimmy fumes and roughhouses about with Cliff, Alison spends an inordinate
amount of time ironing. (One has to wonder why a group of people who live like
such pigs would be so concerned with a few wrinkles in their clothing.) She
reveals to Cliff that she is pregnant but refuses to tell Jimmy. When her actress friend Helena
(Charlotte Parry) comes to stay at the flat, the household tension increases.
Helena persuades Alison to leave her husband, but finds that she herself is
drawn to Jimmy and takes Alison’s place in the flat and at the ironing board.
The cast is excellent, with Goldberg’s simmering heartbreak and anguish particularly fascinating to watch. Gold’s edited version of the text cuts out a scene between Alison and her Colonel father (who, as a vestige of the period, has been eliminated to give the play a more immediate, contemporary feel) and focuses less on Jimmy’s frustration with societal ills and more on his bitter disillusionment with love. Rhys’ Jimmy, while not short on passionate rage, lacks a much-needed vulnerability and charisma. He comes across as an abusive, self-pitying, misogynist bully and the overwhelming, self-destroying love the two women have for him seems implausible in light of his unrelenting abuse. In 1956, Jimmy Porter may have defined a generation, but 21st century audiences may find him a difficult character to identify with. Osborne’s poetic, well-written script of unbridled raw emotion is still powerful, but today it is less revolutionary than it is unsettling and disturbing.
Look Back In Anger; Written by John Osborne; Directed by Sam Gold; Laura Pels Theatre, The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre;111 West 46th Street, New York, NY, 10036; (212) 719-1300