“I said she’s an old bitch, and should be dead! What’s the matter with you? Why don’t you leap to her defence!”
This outburst, one of Jimmy’s (Hugh Purves) most offensive towards his unflinching wife Alison (Zoe Plummer) and about his mother-in-law, epitomises the volatility of John Osborne’s protagonist in his 1956 play, Look Back in Anger.
A frustrated young man, seemingly disillusioned about his place in a post-war world with there being no ‘big causes’ left to fight for, Jimmy struggles to come to terms with the futility of existence and the willingness of Alison and Welsh lodger, Cliff (Tom Sheldon), to simply accept it. As a result Jimmy lapses between the personas of callous bully, wannabe intellectual and childish fantasist. Despite hints of his idealism shining through in exclamations such as “let’s pretend like we’re alive!” his anger and dissatisfaction always gives way to an ‘angry young man’ vibe for which Osborne became famous for highlighting as an overwhelming and legitimate feeling within British society. This particular ‘angry young man’ who has no way to prove his masculinity in the same way as his predecessors since the Second World War took place during his childhood, apparently finds his means of satisfaction in the undermining of the women who enter his life.
Played with smirks and sly looks (as well as odd socks!), Purves’ interpretation of Jimmy under the direction of Jake Leonard was different to the outright violent and aggressive behaviour we might expect of a typically iconic ‘angry man’. However, in doing this he didn’t command the stage as assertively or convincingly with his frustration and the full extent of the raw, unrestrained anger alluded to in his dialogue was a little lost.
Patient, enduring Alison’s (Zoe Plummer) utter contempt for her husband was clearly visible in her monosyllabic responses to Jimmy’s provoking questions whilst arduously ironing endless shirts in the corner of the room. Plummer was consistent in her maintenance of a docile silence in the face of Jimmy’s aggravation in the first act. Her silent but stoic frailty lurched unexpectedly into an enraged saucer smashing ‘peace-seeker’ though and towards the end Alison was in an alarmingly grief-stricken and tear-stained state which Plummer played very convincingly. This transition, whilst understandable, was quite hard to empathise and engage with at points though as a lot of Alison’s deliberately meek and sullen responses failed to project loud enough into the audience to be fully appreciated.
Whilst the full extent of the domestic love-triangle drama unfolded between Jimmy, Alison and her best friend Helena Charles (Zoë Carwardine), Tom Sheldon playing docile, peace-keeping Cliff conveyed his steady, dependable self-deprecating personality with casual, multiple cigarette smoking ease. The relatively sudden and impromptu slapstick/ cabaret outburst which he and Jimmy launch into injected a burst of much-needed energy and humour into the performance and saw them clambering all over a comfy looking patterned arm chair whilst breaking into song. John Bell gave a distinguished yet paternal performance as authoritative Colonel Redfern, his dignified look completed by a generous talcum powder dusting over his hair.
Much credit must go to Zoë Carwardine though for her compelling portrayal of haughty and pristine jobbing actress Helena Charles who arrives to the rescue of Alison before becoming similarly entrapped in the compulsive lethargy of Jimmy’s world. Assertive, argumentative and initially disgusted by Jimmy, Carwardine’s representation facilitated perfectly the mirroring of Helena with Alison as in the second act she too finds herself symbolically behind the ironing board wearing the same ratty checked shirt as Alison did previously.
At times all were guilty of delivering their dialogue too fast and this sometimes meant longer pieces of speech lacked expression. Some of the character interaction was also a bit unconvincing, Alison and Colonel Redfern’s paternal embrace felt far from comforting and even during Jimmy and Cliff’s playful tussles on the floor the action felt a bit restricted.
However, the episodes of animalistic role play were bang on the money in terms of their awkwardness to watch. Alison, Jimmy and Cliff adopted their animal counterparts, Squirrel, Bear and Mouse respectively and descended into an infantile, imaginary world which was much like hearing any loved-up couple address each other by pet names: quite nauseating and uncomfortable.
The costumes which were provided by Victory Vintage complimented the period feel of the performance; trousers and braces for the men, tea dresses and head scarves for the ladies. The boxy set design created by Nada Fahmy Guirguis and Frances Rylands invited the audience straight into the heart of the action taking place in a drab, beige apartment space with one shabby light dangling from the centre. The staging from left to right included a small dressing table, corner stove, a single bed, a dining table with 3 chairs and an additional armchair and rocking chair strewn with various newspapers and books. The lighting design created by Lydia Scott also subtly reflected the on-stage mood throughout the performance. From a warmish glow in the first act it deteriorated into an accusatory grey during the final act when Alison returns to find Helena installed in her place.
There is no getting away from the fact that Look Back in Anger is a complicated cyclical play which deals with domestic relationships and how they can be affected by the corrosive effects of deeper psychological issues and frustrations. These difficulties and an overwhelming feeling of displacement were admirably represented and the performances of the cast and work of the Director, Producer, technical and back-stage teams were commendable especially considering the majority were new to New Theatre and also had to respond to a last minute change of production.