“He’s horrifyingly odd and exciting,” one character says of another in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. The same could be said of the current revival of Osborne’s landmark 1956 work, currently in performances at the Laura Pels Theater. Starring a vibrantly angry and intriguing Matthew Rhys, this revival is a thought-provoking and intriguing production that resonates deeply, long after the theater’s lights go on.
A strongly autobiographical play, Look Back in Anger was written by Osborne while he was unhappily married to Pamela Lane, living in a cramped apartment in Derby. Convinced she was unfaithful to him with a local dentist, he lashed out in his play at marriage, women in particular, and the political atmosphere of London following the war. First performed in 1956, Look Back in Anger served as a voice to disenfranchised men at a loss for direction in their lives. Its harsh portrayal of society, marriage and love shocked the majority of older audiences in London when it was first performed. It is credited with spawning the term “angry young men” to describe Osborne and others in his generation who utilized realism and reality in theater instead of the escapist parlor-room comedies that were so popular. The critic Kenneth Tynan, one of the play’s few champions, described the show as “a minor miracle.”
Set in a cramped apartment in the Midlands, Look Back in Anger follows the unhappy marriage between Jimmy (Matthew Rhys) and Allison (Sarah Goldberg). Restless and discontent, Jimmy verbally abuses everyone and everything around him, especially his wife and best friend. Allison, weary and resigned, occasionally pleads with him to stop his verbal tirades, but he refuses. Their friend Cliff (Adam Driver, very good) also lives with them and attempts to keep the home peaceful but to little avail.
It is clear that Jimmy and Allison’s marriage is an unusual one. Jimmy is strictly working-class, while Allison is from the upper class of London. Their income comes from the sweets shop Jimmy works at, but the job is far below both his education and her previous stance in life, and their small, dirty apartment is not a suitable home to either of them. The conflict increases when Allison’s friend Helena (an excellent Charlotte Parry) arrives for a visit and attempts to remove Allison from her circumstances. However, she is also drawn into the cycle of violence and the love triangle only becomes more complicated.
Directed by Sam Gold, and substantially edited to shorten the original three-hour script, this production is a brutally honest depiction of an abusive home that forces the audience to get closer than they perhaps would have liked. Staged on a long, narrow stage without a curtain, on a cluttered, claustrophobic set that only enhances the chaotic atmosphere, this production of Look Back in Anger feels more like one is spying on the characters than watching them perform.
Spying on this family may not be fun, but it is impossible to look away. As the mismatched couple, Ryhs and Goldberg give compelling performances of admirable strength. Ryhs depicts Jimmy’s restless, misdirected energy and allows the audience to see the man behind the anger. His lengthy diatribes of verbal abuse are terrible to hear, but Ryhs provides glimpses of the vulnerability behind his rage. And Goldberg is superb as Allison, depicting her exhaustion and resignation to the abuse her husband inflicts upon her. The two share an incredible sexual chemistry, and in the few moments when they actually are kind to each other one can imagine what it was like when they fell in love and why they were married in the first place.
Allison and Cliff also share an unusual relationship that crosses the border of platonic friendship. Extremely affectionate, they frequently kiss and hug and he only refers to her as “lovely.” Witnessing how her husband treats her, and with Driver giving a soft-spoken, affectionate and entertaining performance as Cliff, one can understand why she would seek affection from another man. Cliff and Jimmy spar frequently, both verbally and physically, and their play-wrestling often crosses into actual violence.
Violence and rage are the underlying themes of Look Back in Anger. Rage against politics and class fill these characters. And while the play is dated in many ways, these themes are also applicable to present-day society. Occupy Wall Street came to mind several times while listening to Jimmy and Cliff discuss their disenfranchisement with the politics of England. And watching Allison and Helena struggle with their feelings for Jimmy is an all-too-clear reminder that abusive relationships are still paramount in the world today, and while women in 2012 possess many more options than women in 1956, Jimmy and Allison could easily be a modern-day couple rather than a retro era one.
None of the four characters are easily likable, but despite their apparent flaws, one can’t help but feel some compassion for them. In order for this story to be believable, one has to believe that Jimmy is charming and seductive enough to draw these women in. And with Rhys playing him, one is able to believe that.