This is a very special presentation . Not only is it a 60th anniversary production, but John Osborne also worked at Derby Theatre, lived locally, and set the play in the locality. Legend has it that it was written in 17 days in a deck chair on Morecambe Pier. It was certainly inspired by Osborne’s ill-fated marriage to local actress Pamela Lane and the death of his father, Thomas.
Director Sarah Brigham’s production is neither a period piece, nor a modern interpretation. The striking set by Neil Irish reproduces a faithful facsimile of 50’s living space disappearing into doorways which gape into a black void into which the cast disappear and reappear as a header tank and piping hovers overhead.
The beating heart of this play is the Angry Young Man, Jimmy Porter, whose soliloquys and philosophy dominate proceedings. Patrick Knowles inhabits the character admirably delivering his trademark tirades with aplomb and conviction. His ambiguous relationship to his father in law, Army Officer of Empire Colonel Redfern (Ivan Stott) is pivotal. Does he hate him- or want to be him?
Porter’s wife, Alison, is the face of a disintegrating marriage, as boredom, angst, pregnancy, miscarriage and infidelity overwhelm her. Augustina Seymour imbues the character with dignity and poise, her post miscarriage visit to Jimmy is particularly harrowing, her drab clothes and drab countenance perfectly matched. Opposite her Daisy Badger is the perfect femme fatale as friend and love rival, her cut-glass accent as sharp as her red pencil skirt and jacket. Amidst the conflict, flat mate Cliff (Jimmy Fairhurst) metaphorically, and physically, wrestles for Jimmy’s attention.
Some of the impact of its original performances is inevitably lost on modern audiences. The kitchen sink set, vibrant language, and anti-authoritarian tone are now familiar, even if the off- stage trumpet lament is not. Colonel Redfern bemoans the good old days which he has experienced, and lost, Jimmy bemoans the good days which he has never had, mirroring the post war uncertainty and crisis of identity experienced by the country.
Porter’s misogyny, and his wife’s response, feel anachronistic to a contemporary audience. Is Porter the disenfranchised voice of a generation, or just a spoiled, grieving young man, lacking empathy? To what extent does Alison stay with him because culturally that is what women did in unhappy marriages at the time, or was it just that emotionally Osborne could not write his female characters in more rounded fashion?
Brigham’s production neatly offers the questions without seeking to provide answers in a fulfilling and rewarding revival. My only criticism was that the diction and volume of Fairhurst and Knowles occasionally dipped making it difficult to hear. Nevertheless, this is a powerful and worthy revival of a fine work with a defining place in theatrical history- runs to Saturday 26th March.
This review first appeared in Behind the Arras, abridged, where a comprehensive collection of reviews from the best of Midlands Theatre, from a range of reviewers, is available.