THE ANGRY YOUNG MAN RANTS AGAIN, THEN CHANGES SEX
This is a sharp bit of work by Derby, marking 60 years since John Osborne’s splenetic debut blew the lid – so theatre legend insists – off a complacent postwar anyone-for-tennis world. LOOK BACK IN ANGER was condemned as “squalid” by some, but hailed by Tynan for pinpointing a depressed, anarchic, resentful class hostility of working-class youth sick of wartime deference but not yet liberated by the ‘60s. It’s especially sharp since Derby – where Osborne was working as a stroppy stage manager in a failing marriage – actually turned down the play first time round.
So here it is again: a theatre monument in itself (how Osborne would hate me saying that!). And here is that dread ironing-board, at which poor Alison stands, berated on a long dull postwar Sunday afternoon by her husband Jimmy Porter , comforted by the amiable flatmate Cliff, rescued by her ex-Raj Colonel father and visited by her posh friend Helena.
Pleasingly, the matinee audience actually gasped at the shocking moment in Act 2 between Jimmy and Helena: that’s how half-forgotten this play is. I have, since a schoolgirl encounter, always felt about Look Back In Anger much the way Alison must have felt about Jimmy: drawn by the energy, wit and invective, but unable to live with the viciousness. Jimmy – chief voice of the play – is frankly a great big ADHD toddler: sulky, resentful, terminally inconsiderate, surrounded by a litter of books but wasting time jeering at the Sunday papers; yearning for “bite, edge, drive, enthusiasm, Hallelujahs” but energized more by laddish brawls with Cliff and contempt for his upper-middle wife’s mother (“Overfed overprivileged old bitch, pure evil”) and her Anglo-Indian father “a sturdy old plant left over from the Edwardian wilderness”. When his own mother dies, and pregnant Alison has left him for a bit, he yowls for his own bereavement while snarking that his wife is a “selfish woman” and dismissing her pregnancy. His“Why do we let these women bleed us to death?” annoyed me fifty years ago, and still does.
But seeing the play again, done with vigour under Sarah Brigham’s direction in a lovingly rundown set, I relished subtler Osborne moments. He allows humanity to the old Anglo-Indian Colonel (Ivan Stott) and posh Helena’s speech on right and wrong has a sharp clarity , something which an audience can fasten onto for support in JImmy’s more tempestuous world which fetishises only suffering and hopelessness. . Daisy Badger is terrific as Helena, brittle poise covering real softness . Patrick Knowles’ square-set, sulky Jimmy is fully in command of the invective, and indeed of the ghastly bear-and-squirrel baby-talk which is the flip side of the weak-willed revolutionary. Augustina Seymour shines as Alison: silent and enduring at first, depressedly pragmatic, finally half- destroyed by grief over her lost baby.
As for its role in reflecting more widely on a lost Britain and the effort to find a new one, I would meanly say that Alan Bennett actually hits that key more cleanly in Forty Years On. But this raging, flawed black diamond of 1955 is worth polishing up, and Brigham does it proud.
And so to JINNY – the hour-long companion-piece Derby commissioned to play in the same scruffy flat (ironing board and all). It is set in 2015, among a newer generation of 25-year-olds frustrated by lack of opportunity and resentment of the posh. In Jane Wainwright’s monologue the principal is not Jimmy but a Jinny, a young woman on a zero-hours contract who aspires to be a singer-songwriter. Joanna Simpkins, with wild red-tipped hair and a Tracey Emin scowl, sings (very poignantly at one point) and, being female, at least does her own ironing. She is no fool, but has stalled helplessly since taking a music degree and fallen behind her ‘uni’ contemporaries, especially the more middle-class ones like “Elinor with an i – who is not only patronizing, but a nutritionist”.
She takes us through a day in which she wakes in the seedy shared Derby flat she shares with a pregnant friend, and bunks off work to meet a potential manager. He is looking for a rough-edged feminist vibe and assures her “menstruation is trending!” . It does not go well, not least because Jinny arrives in bike shorts with her helmet still on, interrupts the interview to take a call from her beloved Nan and therefore isn’t let back in, then runs off home in tears leaving her guitar, pausing only to assault a billboard for having smiley white teeth and being on the side of the shiny winners in life’s lottery. “What does she know? what do any of them know about us?”
There are witty echoes of the Osborne play: the posh resented friend, the sense of outsider status, the helpless angry fruitless inferiority when she encounters a receptionist “wearing those earrings people wear when they hit forty or work in an art gallery, she should be eating a scone or something”.
SImpkins, however, holds our sympathy and the playwright is cunning enough to throw doubt over her world-view . Early on Jinny relates how in her schooldays a friend, Tania, wanted to be a vet but was dissuaded by dull patronizing teachers: a standard educational trope of today: schools putting down ordinary folk’s ambitions, bah humbug. Yet in the last few minutes we casually learn that Tania is a vet now. So it’s about Jinny herself, not the cliché of a generation betrayed. Just as the Angry Young Men were never really Everyman. Just angry. And eloquent.
box office 01332 593939 to 26 March