BWW Review: LOOK BACK IN ANGER at ARTS Theatre

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BWW Review: LOOK BACK IN ANGER at ARTS TheatreReviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 29th August 2019.

The Adelaide Repertory Theatre Society is presenting John Osborne's autobiographical 1956 three-act classic, Look Back in Anger, under the direction of Lesley Reed, who has made cuts to reduce the work to two acts. Osborne drew on his failing relationship with his then-wife, Pamela Lane, in writing this play. This realist play was one of the first that became known as 'kitchen sink dramas' and coined the term 'angry young man', applied to the playwright. Interestingly, his final play, from 1989, a sequel titled Déjàvu, in which an adult daughter has taken her mother's place at the ironing board, was poorly received and is seldom performed.

The War was long over by the mid-1950s, but its adverse impact on life in England lingered. There were still shortages, and rationing of some goods continued into this period. Britain had not yet returned to normal, whatever that meant. Rationing finally ended in 1954 but, with the Suez crisis, petrol rationing was reinstated for a short time between late 1956 and mid '57. National Dried Milk, from the Ministry of Food, was still available at a subsidised price to mothers of infants. Times were not easy.

Jimmy Porter is of working-class origins, scraping a living running a sweet-stall (lollies to Australians, candy to Americans) and possibly wishing that he could put together another jazz group to earn more by playing the trumpet. He is living in the squalid, single room in the attic of a Victorian boarding house in the English Midlands with his wife, Alison. He is intelligent and educated, which has alienated him from his class, and has been married to Alison for three years. She is upper-middle class, and her parents are unhappy with the marriage. Jimmy resents her higher social status and constantly berates her and her family. It is almost as though he married her out of spite, to punish her and her parents for their higher status.

His partner in running the sweet-stall, a Welshman, Cliff Lewis, lives in another room across the hall in the same house, but seems to spend most of his time with them. The play opens early on a Sunday evening, with Jimmy and Cliff reading the newspapers while Alison is doing the ironing; a weekly ritual. Cliff regularly tries to stop Jimmy from trying to goad Alison into a response to his niggling. At the end of the first act, Alison's friend, Helena Charles, an actress appearing in a play in the area, is about to stay for a while in a vacant room in the house, and the dynamic changes drastically when she joins the trio, passing their time together in the attic room.

It always baffles me that, in a country with over two centuries of immigration from Britain, and with new arrivals all the time whose accents could be copied, and numerous British television programmes, theatre productions invariably seem to have great difficulty in establishing accurate and consistent regional British accents. This is no exception and, as sometimes happens, concentrating on the accents can get in the way of the acting.

Jimmy comes out swinging, shouting, angry, ranting, and raving, and he stays that way. A series of highs and lows, an ebb and flow, would have added greatly to the production. Adam Tuominen, who plays Jimmy Porter, gives a powerful performance, exuding anger, occasionally allowing vulnerability and even self-doubt peek through.

Richard Burton's film performance made great use of quiet menace, hissing venomously inches from Alison's face, and the more recent BBC Radio performance begins with David Tennant as a softly spoken, bored, almost lethargic Jimmy. This gives them scope for building to moments of great anger, fury, and the edge of violence.

Alison, played by Leah Lowe, says very little in response to Jimmy's barrage of insults and derogatory comments, holding her tongue and keeping her temper under control, denying him a full-blown fight and leaving it to Cliff to hold him back. Lowe must resort to nonverbal communication, body language and facial expressions, for extended periods between spoken conversations, which she does with varying degrees of success. By the end, in the final moments between Alison and Jimmy, both Lowe and Tuominen excel.

James Edwards plays Cliff Lewis, the not always effective calming influence, who also has an eye for Alison. Edwards gives a well-measured and carefully crafted performance that engages at times and just needs to establish his character a little more consistently.

Helena Charles is played by Jessica Carroll in a rather mechanical performance that just needs to make a convincing connection to her character to release the emotional journey that Helena takes.

Jack Robins appears in one short scene as Alison's father, Colonel Redfern, when he arrives to take her away. He went to India when it was still the 'Jewel in the Crown' of the British Empire because of its resources and strategic location. In 1947, the rule of the 'British Raj' ended, sending him back to his English home, where he had spent almost no time at all for decades. He is a man out of his time and place, dealing with so many things that he doesn't understand. Robins does well in conveying this bewilderment, this sense of alienation and an attempt at adjusting to a greatly changed role.

For a chilly Sunday evening in April, it seems strange costuming to have Alison barefooted and barelegged, and the two men in socks. Carpet slippers and warm clothing would have been the order of the day on a cold and wet evening, as I remember only too well. The script, in fact, actually describes the skirt that Alison is wearing, once expensive, now dirty, and worn. It is not until the second act that the weather turns hot. For a garret, the set is remarkably spacious and well lit.

The opening night performance, then, lacked sufficient fire, passion, and believable emotions. Hopefully, this was due to opening night nerves, and that the characters would have emerged, and more genuine emotional motives and responses have been established since then.



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