Ten pound Poms let out of the nursing home may enjoy a trip down memory lane with Paris Hat's production of Look Back in Anger, but there is much more to this play for those of us who didn't live through post-war England. This is an opportunity to experience a first-rate performance of a play that was pivotal in the development of modern theatre.
Look Back in Anger was remarkable when first performed for its use of props as mundane as ironing boards and has since earned a place in history as a pivotal play in the history of British theatre. It is a brave move to present a piece as seminal as this, and Paris Hat is to be congratulated on pulling it off.
The story centres on Jimmy, an educated layabout who has almost as much respect for his wife, Alison, as he has for the posh newspapers he reads religiously each Sunday while complaining about the noise from the church bells. They live in a minute bedsit with no running water, with a separate room for their Welsh friend, Cliff. The strained relationships between this trio face the challenges of poverty, indolence and poorly-suppressed rage and come out looking rather the worse for wear.
As a performer, I'm sure Benjamin Williams, who plays Jimmy, will be leaving the stage every night also the worse for wear. He must bear close to half of the play's insanely complicated dialogue, and he does so with a lightness that belies the complexity of both the role and the political context his character was written to challenge. So too must Chris Zuber, who plays Cliff, and Fiona Atkin, who plays Alison, find themselves emotionally drained after their stellar performances. It is a particular challenge for actors to remain completely in character for page after page of monologue from another character, and these performers show great fortitude in the face of this challenge.
These performers are joined by Sophie Benassi and Ian Croker, both of whom portray their characters with aplomb. They inhabit a desperately cramped stage, and Cara Irvine has done well to balance the need for movement with the need to present a very small dwelling. Ian Croker's set design is ingenius, with the use of a translucent ceiling being very effective in enclosing the performance space.
The program proudly proclaims that Look Back in Anger is "not merely a museum piece", and focuses on the story of its characters, but even this production doesn't change my mind that Look Back in Anger is not so much about its own characters as it is about English history, English politics and English social change. Perhaps in 1956 the characters and plot stood tall, but 55 years later they fade into their context all too quickly. These characters present to us an England that was losing its sense of what it knew to be Englishness. The lessons of World War Two were slowly sinking in, and as their empire was dismantled and their class structure crumbled under the weight of a new sense of social justice, Look Back in Anger was a story that acknowledged the change and embraced it boldly.
The play was, in turn, embraced by a generation of Britons who were largely dissatisfied with the social order, and demanded change. And over time, the play itself has become far less important than what it represented.
In my opinion, it is not the quality of the writing, though it does enjoy more than its fair share of loquacious soliloquies, but the relevance of the story to its generation that made the play what it is. Unlike the theatre historian who wrote the program, I really don't think this is anything more than a museum piece; these characters have nothing in common with young people of the twenty first century, who tend to be ridiculously optimistic and infinitely assured of their own enfranchisement. But it just so happens that I like museums and think that a well presented artefact like this is a thing of beauty.
Paris Hat presents
LOOK BACK IN ANGER
by John Osborne
Directed by Cara Irvine
Venue: Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre
Dates: Thurs 17 – Sun 20 & Wed 23 – Sat 26 February, 2011
Times: Wed – Sat 8pm; Saturday matinees 2pm; Sunday 20 5pm
Tickets: $29 |$19
Bookings: 6275 2700 | www.canberraticketing.com.au (CTC box office open 9am – 5pm Monday Friday)