This is an extended and illustrated version of my review of Ferndale Rep's production of Look Back in Anger, which has one more weekend in its run--after today's matinee.
In 1956, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger transformed British drama almost overnight. With its non-upper class characters and setting, and its contemporary street sensibilities, it played throughout England over the following two years and catapulted British theatre into the modern age. It helped ignite a new generation of playwrights in England and America, from Harold Pinter to Edward Albee, who begat Sam Shepard and so on.
|original 1956 production, which introduced Alan Bates (center)|
But the play always had problems in America, especially as translating the exact political and class situations in 1950s England became compounded by the distance of time. New York Times reviewer Frank Rich found the 1980 revival (starring Malcolm McDowell) dated. The current New York production is getting mixed notices.
But Jimmy is not a one-note character—he can be kind and funny as well as aggressive-- and his tirades are not position papers. As a dramatist Osborne expresses (in his words) “the texture of ordinary despair, the way it expresses itself in rhetoric and gestures that may perhaps look shabby, but are seldom simple.”
This complexity plays out in the ongoing interpersonal drama. Jimmy lives in a crowded flat with his beautiful ruling class wife Alison and his working class friend Cliff. When Alison’s friend Helena enters, she precipitates the changes that drive the plot.
The production of Look Back in Anger currently at Ferndale Repertory Theatre, faithfully follows the setting of the original production. There is the usual American problem of not immediately recognizing this world, and so some of the funniest lines can slip by. If the play is no longer shocking, it is still strange. Jimmy’s baiting of Alison, her apparent passivity, and the provocative relationship of Cliff and Alison, contribute to the first act tension.
As Jimmy, Ethan Edmonds’ English accent seemed a bit too posh at first, though his sonorous delivery (reminding me of Richard Burton starring in the classic 1959 film version) ultimately pays off in a big way, for one of the surprises of this play is the eloquence and abundance of language. Once Alison starts talking, Greta Stockwell brings her to life, and she achieves a perhaps surprising balance between these characters. Charlie Heinberg as Cliff ably negotiates a space between them.
After this seemingly chaotic and overgenerous preparation, and with the strong addition of Tisha Sloan as Helena, the second act is completely gripping. In his one scene, Bob Morse provides instant credibility as Alison’s father, the representative of the ruling class that Jimmy criticizes—criticism that he sees as partially just. “You’re hurt because everything is changed,” Alison says to him. “Jimmy is hurt because everything is the same. And neither of you can face it. Something’s gone wrong somewhere, hasn’t it?” But in this play it’s just one way that loss informs living.
So despite the inherent problems, this production turns out to be revelatory, due in part to the structural soundness of the play, but mostly to John Heckel’s taut direction and the excellent ensemble acting—as good as any I’ve seen on the North Coast.
Much of Look Back in Anger has strong autobiographical connection, including the complicated relationships, which continued in Osborne's many-marriages life. John Osborne had a long career as a playwright, and continued to be groundbreaking, with Luther (a drama about Martin Luther), Inadmissable Evidence and A Patriot for Me, which is credited with helping to end the centuries' old system of censorship. He became a screenwriter, and won an Oscar for his adaptation of the now classic Tom Jones film with Albert Finney. He even acted in films, notably in Get Carter (starring Michael Caine, who may be the only actor to act in films with both Osborne and Noel Coward) and strangely enough, the awful Flash Gordon remake. He finally revisited the characters in Look Back in Anger in his last work for the stage, Dejavu in 1992, which met with mixed responses.
|David Tennant in 2005 British production|
It's also worth noting that while Look Back In Anger changed British theatre, it also quickly became part of the continuity of British and American theatre. Laurence Olivier saw this show at is opening, accompanied by American playwright Arthur Miller. Olivier didn't like it but Miller did, and so when the two met Osborne backstage, Olivier asked him to write him a part in his next play. Olivier soon starred in Osborne's The Entertainer, one of Olivier's signature triumphs, which revived his career for a new generation. Ralph Richardson, another eminence of the old school, later starred in another Osborne play.
John and Noel
It took a little longer, but after making derogatory comments about each other's work, Osborne and playwright Noel Coward became friends. Osborne initiated the truce with a letter, and Coward quickly reciprocated. Osborne would then say that Coward "is his own invention and contribution to this century...To be your own enduring invention seems to me to be heroic and essential." Even Kenneth Tynan came around to appreciating the enduring character of Coward's work, reccommending that the new National Theatre produce Coward's Hay Fever (with Coward directing) as their first play by a living author. "Coward took the fat off English comic dialogue," Tynan wrote in the program notes. "He was the Turkish bath in which it slimmed."
All of this is locally relevant since shortly after Osborne's Look Back in Anger closes at Ferndale Rep, Noel Coward's classic 1941 comedy, Blithe Spirit, opens for a weekend at HSU (Feb. 29- March 4.)
By the time he and Coward became friends, Osborne had already recapitulated parts of Coward's history. Coward's first play, Vortex, was as shocking to 1924 audiences (as it dealt with drug addiction and sex) as Look Back in Anger was 30 years later. But curiously, they both took the same path to producing film versions of their plays. In Coward's case it was about the time that Blithe Spirit was first on stage that he took control, forming his own film company with two young filmmakers he'd worked with on his wartime movie, In Which We Serve: cinematographer Ronald Neame and director David Lean. Both became famous names in the British film industry and beyond for a generation or more. Blithe Spirit was one of the first films they did together.
Osborne turned to his stage director, Tony Richardson, and insisted he direct the film version of Look Back in Anger. It was the beginning of Richardson's substantial career as a film director, which included The Entertainer and Tom Jones, as well as another working class hero classic, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The Osborne film stars Richard Burton, with Mary Ure (now Mrs. Osborne) reprising her role as Alison, and Claire Bloom as Helena. It considerably opens up the play, notably making more of Jimmy as a trumpet player in a jazz band. There are also scenes at his sweets stall, and several characters just mentioned in the play (his landlady, the mother of his friend who bequeathed the sweets shop) appear.
The two had something else in common regarding these films. Coward didn't like the film version of Blithe Spirit at all, though it did go on to be successful. And Osborne eventually turned against Tony Richardson, portraying him as an egotistical autocrat in a play. Both films, incidentally, are public domain, and viewable on YouTube.