Show: Look Back in Anger
Company: Redtwist Theatre
Venue: Redtwist Theatre
Die Roll: 18
When John Osborne wrote “Look Back in Anger” in the 1950s, he pushed the boundaries of what contemporary British audiences would accept in the way of hyper-realistic theatre. Over 50 years later the play isn’t forward-thinking; it isn’t boundary-pushing. It is a product of its time, even if it was ahead of its time at the time (How many times can I type the word “time”?).
A story about an emotionally and physically abusive man and the two women who get involved with him, the play is set in a cramped attic apartment that is inhabited by Jimmy Porter (played by Joseph Wiens) and his wife, Alison (played by Baize Buzan). Jimmy is an angry man who seems to feel that the world hasn’t lived up to what he wanted from it, and that he’s owed something from it. He hates all people of means (including his in-laws). He spends most of the play shouting vitriolic invectives at his wife or the across-the-hall neighbor, Cliff Lewis (played by Japhet Balaban).
Were I to ever write a textbook on the quintessential way to be an abusive, sociopathic spouse, I would use Jimmy Porter as a primary example. There is nothing redeeming about that character. He really is a point for point embodiment of wrongness.
So, why do this show? It is a really long, immersive adventure through being badgered and battered. It is monologue heavy, and most of those monologues are really rants, at best. We are told by other characters that Jimmy is an intellectual, but he does little and says little that proves this in any way. In fact, he proves to be nothing more than an immature man-boy and a bully. On paper, at least, the character goes through almost no change at all from beginning to end. And no one around him goes through much of a change at all, either. His wife leaves him, and in doing so becomes the one character that goes through some character development, but we don’t see the majority of her struggles, because she spends most of the 2nd act off stage. Her best friend, who eventually takes up with Jimmy immediately after Alison’s departure, does so with little explanation and upon Alison’s eventual return makes the equally baffling snap decision that what she’s been up to in the meantime is wrong and that she must leave immediately after a months-long relationship with Jimmy.
I have a theory that the appeal of doing this play right now is because there are some parallels with the millennial generation. We’re looking at young people who can’t find work, or at least satisfying work, who largely hold that fact against the generations prior. We also get to see abuse in action, and that is always topical.
Even though I don’t enjoy the play itself as a work of art, I do consider it a work of art. It makes the audience feel. Basically it makes you feel a bit like you’re a victim of abuse, too. At least for the first act. And Wiens does a fine job of being the unsympathetic abuser. The question that I have is whether he is intended to be unsympathetic. If we are to empathize with him at all, then the goal was likely missed. I know that we’re supposed to see the character as a broken individual who is struggling, but that level of depth isn’t there. All the characters are very surface-level only. One exception is Larry Baldacci as Colonel Redfern (Alison’s father), who portrays an aristocratic Brit who is coming to terms with the fact that the world isn’t the place he once knew.
Clocking in at just under 3 hours, the show is an effective museum piece for those who are interested in what realism was like when it first shook up the London stage. For those wanting the grit and muscle of a good, modern bit of realism, I would look elsewhere.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Angry young man feels wronged by society’s demands upon him.
RATING: d8 – “Not Bad, Not Great.”