REVIEW: Look Back in Anger
A talented production of the intensely gripping 1956 play
Osborne’s Look Back In Anger first burst onto the British theatre scene in 1956, blazing with what it means to be young, insecure, in love and weighed down by the belly-aching hunger for something bigger and better. It cut through the mollycoddling sweetness of the popular escapist theatre of the time, bluntly portraying the post-war youth as it really was and clawing its way onto the stage as the beginning of Modern Drama.
The story revolves around the character of Jimmy (Tom Hilton), the original Angry Young Man, and his relationship with his wife Alison (Ella Blackburn). It begins on a Sunday – a Sunday we’ve all had, a Sunday measured out by lumps of sugar in tea and punctuated by the stifling rumpling of the paper. However, bubbling malevolently under the surface is the jarring, entangled hatred and love in which Alison and Jimmy's marriage is steeped, immediately putting the audience on edge. The light-hearted joking quickly dissolves to reveal the fissures and chasms in their relationship. Tensions ensue and intensify with an unexpected turn of events and the arrival of Alison’s alluring old friend, strangling the audience with the claustrophobic atmosphere that always seems to be on the brink of explosion.
Hilton and Blackburn were the stand-out actors in this production, who undoubtedly mastered the intricacies of their characters – this certainly is a feat, considering that Jimmy was once described as the ‘completest young pup in our literature since Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’. Hilton's Jimmy was a magnetic figure: educated, brimming with potential, but drowning, seemingly alone, under the burden of life’s cruelty and the class system. He destroys everyone he loves, picking them apart in an attempt to avoid his own insecurities. Hilton effortlessly evoked from the audience a simultaneous desire to both hug and slap him. I hated him, but it was difficult to not relate to his desire for something more.
Blackburn’s performance was equally impressive and convincing. The audience was right with her from the beginning; her lows and highs were heart wrenching, her vulnerability was so close to the surface, her vivacity so clear. Her character arc seemed to me to be the most convincing and thoughtful. Together, Hilton and Blackburn created a bittersweet and realistic relationship, which seemed to be the best and worst of times.
The other actors also performed very well, especially Benn Lynn, playing Cliff, whose strength was his natural warmth and loveliness. The only problem was that, although each actor acted well and seemed to be sure of their character, there were definite dissonances within the cast that made certain plot elements really rather jarring and inorganic. In particular, there is meant to be intense chemistry between Jimmy and Helena (Claire Burchett), Alison’s old friend, yet I didn’t notice anything other than hostility until it was too late. Furthermore, I felt that the play started off at such a high point of tension that it was difficult for it to go anywhere – but both of these criticisms seem to be more about the writing than anything else.
Another excellent component of the atmosphere of the play was the use of set and space. The set was appropriately claustrophobic, with clothes hanging off lines strung across the room and general mess everywhere. The Fitzpatrick Hall was a perfect space for the show, as the audience was small, and it felt very intimate – especially since there is something about seeing the actors' faces so close up.
All in all, I would thoroughly recommend giving this play a watch. It is monumental, not only due to its heritage as the forefront of Modern Drama in British theatre, but due to the sheer talent of the actors.
Look Back in Anger is on at 7:30pm in Fitzpatrick Hall, Queens’ College, until Monday, 27th October.