“There’s a place in the world for the angry young man, with his working class ties and his radical plans. He refuses to bend, he refuses to crawl, and he’s always at home with his back to the wall. He’s proud of the scars and the battles he’s lost. He struggles and bleeds as he hangs on the cross, and he likes to be known as the angry young man…”
These lyrics may have been written by Billy Joel, but the term “Angry Young Man” was most notably applied to John Osbourne’s signature play, “Look Back in Anger” when it first opened in 1956. The play was largely autobiographical, based on Osborne’s time living and quarreling with his first wife in cramped accommodation in Derby, England.
Osbourne’s work was a strong contrast to the genteel work of the popular writers at that time and opened the door to a whole new generation of writers. His representation of the lower middle class man and his feelings of frustration and exclusion from English society provoked a major controversy.
Recently revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company, “Look Back in Anger” stars Matthew Rhys (ABC’s “Brothers and Sisters”), Sarah Goldberg, Adam Driver and Charlotte Parry. Rhys plays the antagonist Jimmy Porter, a true angry young man who yearns for passion and rages against the establishment. With his venomous words, he is out to bite just about everyone that comes in his path.
Set in 1950s England, Jimmy, an over-educated candy store owner, lives with his wife Alison and their friend Cliff, in a grungy one-room flat. Jimmy’s dissatisfaction for everything around him, from the state of the world to his impassive wife, is evident in his daily tirades.
On Sunday, the most lackluster day of the week, a brooding Jimmy sits around idling, which does little else but infuriate him. The atmosphere is filled with hostility and resentment. His routine consists of criticizing the papers, listening to the radio, and arguing and taunting both Cliff and Alison over their acceptance of the world around them. Although Jimmy and Cliff seem to get along amicably, one cannot say the same for Jimmy and his wife Alison. His words are especially cruel and abusive towards her. “If only something would happen to you, and wake you out of your beauty sleep! If you could have a child, and it would die…”
When Alison’s friend Helena comes to stay for a while, life becomes even more unbearable.
Rhys, making his New York theatre debut, does a remarkable job of playing the disgruntled Jimmy. A difficult role to play, Rhys somehow manages to make Jimmy appealing, especially to women, never mind his abusive tendencies and generally disturbing personality. Rhys is magnetic onstage, revealing a venomous streak, but also a tender side to Jimmy as well. There is great chemistry between him and Driver onstage as they playfully poke fun at one another.
Driver does a fine job as Cliff, the peacemaker of the bunch. Cliff seems mostly amused by Jimmy’s rants and shrugs off any taunting remarks towards him. At times, we see them sharing the paper or playfully sparring together. Cliff does have a most unusual relationship with Alison though as they are often playfully kissing and cuddling which seems to irritate Jimmy, but perhaps that’s the point. Whether he is sharing a tender moment, or defending her to Jimmy, Driver shows great depth of character.
Alison, nicely played by Goldberg, is the wife of Porter. Goldberg’s expressions show us all we need to know about who Alison is and the role she plays in her relationship with Jimmy. We see and feel the pain in her eyes and face, and watch as she carefully moves across the stage never knowing when Jimmy might violently erupt.
The haughty Helena is well portrayed by Charlotte Parry. Although Helena seems to detest Jimmy at first, she eventually finds the bad boy in him quite irresistible. We watch as she talks Alison into leaving him to go home to her parents. How ironic to later find her at the ironing board assuming Alison’s role in Jimmy’s life.
Director Sam Gold, currently on Broadway with “Seminar,” has more or less adapted Osborne’s work. But Gold and set designer Andrew Lieberman have presented the setting in a rather unique way. In the minimal playing area, there are disheveled furnishings along with other garbage, discarded newspapers and tin cans thrown aside when the contents have been eaten. The problem with this, is that characters spend so much time ironing shirts to perfection, that one would assume they would know how to keep a clean house. Most interesting is the tall black wall that was constructed, and a mostly cut off stage allowing only a few feet for the actors to perform, perfectly symbolizing the feeling of confinement felt by all characters. Living in such cramped quarters with these people would make just about anyone go mad.
Perhaps not explosive as it was in it’s release, the play can still be considered a contemporary piece as it relates to the frustrations of the lower middle-class man today and the lack of opportunity he faces. Even decades later, Osbourne’s play still has the power to startle and its language the power to shock. Love it, or hate it, the play will undoubtedly stir up some strong emotion inside of you. There are a few surprises in the story that may leave you gasping, some in amusement, others in total disbelief, as well as the ending.
“Look Back in Anger” will no doubt leave you feeling grateful that you are none of these pathetic characters.