Popular mythology states that John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger revolutionised British theatre when first performed in 1956 at The Royal Court and ushered in kitchen sink drama and the rise of the angry young man (a phrase coined by the publicist at the time). The reality was that it wasn’t an instant hit. Audiences, and critics, had mixed feelings, reportedly gasping at the sight of an ironing board on stage. The play took on legendary status as the years passed, with everyone from Aaron Sorkin to David Bowie referencing it. One question facing every production of a modern classic play: do you contemporarise it or make it a museum piece? Red Line Productions during this 60th anniversary year of the play, have chosen to set their work fair and square in 1956 complete with peeling wall paper and net curtains.
The play centres around the relationship breakdown between Jimmy, an educated working-class man and Alison his upper class wife. This four person chamber piece also includes another lodger – Welshman Cliff and Alison’s friend Helena.
Andrew Henry plays Jimmy very much as a bear, as referenced in the script, flopping around the apartment causing chaos and making noise. Melissa Bonne’s Alison and Chantelle Jamieson’ Helena are women from post-colonial India, expected to maintain a certain decorum and standard of living, that is impossible in 1950s post-war, post-Empire, class-structured United Kingdom. The women aren’t given much scope beyond servicing the men. It is hard for a contemporary audience to imagine why a genteel young woman like Alison would stay with whinging Jimmy; the sexual chemistry has gone and there is only slight indication of any love that may have once been. Alison is no Aussie battler like Olive from Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, nor is she given the language to fight back like Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf (all written within a few years of each other). There is a tired love triangle that drives this play.
Robin Goldsworthy is mercurial; he gets it. His Cliff embodies the physicality of post World War II Britain, the containment of living in close quarters to your landlady, and his lightning quick switches between merry, manic and menacing are worth the ticket price alone.
The apartment is described by Cliff as “a very narrow strip of plain hell” and Johnathan Hindmash has made good use of the Old Fitz’ intimate space to create this. Lighting by Ross Graham is suitably dim and captures the depression of 1950s Britain; his skylight provides beautiful illumination of Alison but also releases all of us from the pressure cooker environment of the small flat, as do the two intervals.
Anna Gardiner’s costumes are spot on. The only incongruous visual elements in the world of the play were tiny things like serving quiche and salad for dinner, which wouldn’t have been available to the working classes at the time according to the British national food survey.
And this is the dilemma. As a period drama it is an important piece of theatre; as a relationship piece it is steeped in misogyny and domestic violence.
Despite its considerable fame, this is a play that is rarely performed today. The sight of an ironing board may have shocked original audiences; contemporary audiences may instead be shocked by the constant battering of Alison by her husband both verbally and physically. This year alone 45 Australian women have died from domestic violence disputes (going up from 44 just in the time between attending the performance and publishing this review).
Look Back in Anger? Damn right we do.
Look Back In Anger runs at the Old Fitz until
Fiona Hallenan-Barker : Theatre Now
Fiona is a director, programmer, producer, dramaturg and general theatre advocate. A graduate of both Theatre Nepean and VCA Directing she has worked in artistic programming at Sydney Opera House and Merrigong Theatre Company
16 Aug – 10 Sep 2016
Tue – Sat 7:30PM
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre
Theatre Company: Red Line Productions