Look Back in Anger by John Osborne

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Reviewed by Annabel

Faber & Faber is one of my favourite publishers; in recent years with Faber Finds they’ve started to make the most of their impressive backlist – we’ve reviewed several of these reprints already. Now they have introduced Faber Modern Classics, ‘a library of essential reading brought together in one beautiful livery.’  This list launched with ten titles in April, some more coming in June, and thereafter annual additions are planned.

The first batch are a diverse group, but the one that instantly caught my eye was John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. I’d never read nor seen it before, yet ‘knew’ all about it, being one of those landmark plays that broke all the rules and gave us the original kitchen-sink drama by an ‘Angry Young Man’.  The play was performed in the first season at the Royal Court Theatre in 1956, and Faber brought out the script in 1957 – a bold move then, for contemporary plays were not often published in those days.

Jimmy Porter is an educated young man from working class stock. He went to university but has ended up running a sweet stall on the market with his friend Cliff, who rooms in the same house. Jimmy is married to Alison; it was a whirlwind romance, and they married against the wishes of her parents who are considerably posher.

The action takes place entirely in their bedsitter.  It starts as Jimmy and Cliff are reading the Sunday papers, Alison is ironing but only half-listening, as is Cliff. Jimmy meanwhile wants an audience for his views on the news of the day but when they don’t take the bait, he starts getting augmentative, calling Alison ‘Lady Pusillanimous’.  He continues on his tirade against her:

‘I’ve watched her doing it night after night. When you see a woman in front of her bedroom mirror, you realize what a refined sort of a butcher she is.’

Soon Cliff and Jimmy get into a tussle and the iron is knocked over burning Alison’s arm.  Jimmy goes off to the jazz club, leaving Cliff to console Alison. Later they make up, a kiss and cuddle pretending to be a squirrel and bear – but Alison is called to the phone, this interruption once again thwarting her need to tell him that she is pregnant.

It’s her old friend Helena who needs somewhere to stay – Jimmy hates her! Once Helena arrives, Jimmy takes every opportunity to continue to belittle Alison and her family in front of Helena.

‘The funny thing is, you know, I really did have to ride up on a white charger – off white, really. Mummy locked her up in their eight bedroomed castle, didn’t she? There is no limit to what the middle-aged mummy will do in the holy crusade against ruffians like me. Mummy and I took one quick look at each other, and, from then on, the age of chivalry was dead. …Mummy may look overfed and a bit flabby on the outside, but don’t let that well-bred guzzler fool you. Underneath all that, she’s armour-plated.‘

Things come to a head and pushed just too far, Alison snaps and later goes home with her father who comes to collect her, leaving Helena still there. … and there is more yet to come in this claustrophobic drama.

Reading play scripts can be a hit and miss affair, (Shakespeare excepted of course). Sometimes the action doesn’t leap off the page – Chekhov with everyone coming and going all the time reads very bittily – but is transformed on stage. Osborne’s play however, has just five characters, is contained within its single set, and the comprehensive stage directions make it sizzle off the page. You can feel Jimmy’s passion, intellectual snobbery and anger, Alison’s air of abnegation and complicity in being the butt of Jimmy’s tirades. Cliff is the peacemaker – a friend to both, straight man to Jimmy’s foolery and Helena of course is the spanner in the works that upsets everything. The fifth character is Alison’s father who only appears in one brief scene – but does make an impact:

Colonel: And what does he say about me?

Alison: He likes you because he can feel sorry for you. (conscious that what she says is going to hurt him) ‘Poor old Daddy – just one of those sturdy old plants left over from the Edwardian Wilderness that can’t understand why the sun isn’t shining any more.’

God I hated Jimmy!  Yet I could see why Alison could be attracted to him, his strong emotions when working in the right direction, could attract anyone.  He is lazy though, digging ever further into his rut, building up that chip on his shoulder. I had sympathy for Alison but I didn’t like her either. I couldn’t understand why she’d stayed long enough to get pregnant, she did have parents who would have welcomed her home, but the spark in her that attracted her to Jimmy in the first place was enough to keep her there.

This new edition is introduced by theatre critic Michael Billington who sets the scene for the play’s first appearances on stage and in print and reactions to them. Playwright David Hare’s inaugural John Osborne Lecture from the Hay festival in 2002 is included as an afterward. Both are fascinating companion pieces.

Look Back in Anger is supposedly set in the Midlands, but apart from brief references to local news stories you’d never know from reading the script – it felt more like Patrick Hamilton’s Earls Court than Dudley. Cliff is Welsh, Alison and Helena are posh and Jimmy has been to university, so it could be set anywhere really.

To prepare for writing this piece I watched two versions available on YouTube. In the 1959 MGM film starring Richard Burton and Mary Ure, Osborne relocated some of the dialogue to other locations and added other brief scenes so there was a part for Donald Pleasance as the market inspector and Edith Evans as Jimmy’s old landlady who had set him up with the stall. Needless to say Burton is riveting, almost psychopathic, but his own accent is so dramatic, it rather out poshed the girls’. Then I watched Ken and Em (Branagh and Thompson) from 1989, directed by Judi Dench. At the start of it Ken comes over as a petulant teenager but his Jimmy does grow in the play, whereas Em is almost invisible, underplaying it throughout. In both though, the scene that comes across as strangest, is the one where they play at squirrel and bear – Burton and Ure ham that up for all it’s worth, Ken and Em are a little more restrained – but it feels a little voyeuristic!

Watching these and reading the script has left me desperately hoping that the NT or RSC will stage a revival. However much you may dislike the characters, it’s a blisteringly well-structured play with some stunning dialogue.  The problem is – who would play Jimmy Porter?

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors.

John Osborne, Look Back in Anger (Faber, 2015) paperback, 140 pages.

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