“John Osborne didn’t contribute to British theatre; he set off a landmine called Look Back In Anger and blew most of it up,” once declared Alan Sillitoe, whose 1958 novel Saturday Night And Sunday Morning saw him grouped alongside Osborne as one of the so-called Angry Young Men who revolutionised British culture in the 1950s.
This year marks 60 years since Look Back In Anger made its debut at London’s Royal Court and helped transform post-war drama through its mix of anarchistic vitriol, raw working class naturalism and youthful incandescent prose. Despite its lofty status, the play’s anniversary has been all but ignored by most theatre companies, with its only major revival in 2016 produced by Derby Theatre, led by Sarah Brigham.
“I think people are slightly scared of it,” explains Brigham ahead of the show’s three week run at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre. “It’s a beast of a play. There is a lot of language and I also think that maybe some directors don’t really know how to deal with its perceived sexism.”
By her own admission, when Brigham first read Look Back In Anger as a 21-year-old student she dismissed it as a misogynistic period piece and “threw it to one side.” It was only later that she returned to Osborne’s most celebrated work – based on his own unhappy marriage to actor Pamela Lane – and “recognised the quality of the language and Osborne’s poetry.”
“It’s very much a 25-year-old guy, pissed off with love and life and putting it down on paper,” elaborates Patrick Knowles, who plays lead character Jimmy Porter – a disaffected Midlands market trader prone to launching into cutting tirades on sex, class, vicars, anti-smokers, the political establishment and, most uncomfortably for modern audiences, his upper-class wife Alison, played by Augustina Seymour.
“It is supremely sexist. Essentially, you’re watching a man emotionally abuse his wife. But unfortunately people do still live in those situations and if you’re not representing that truthfully, it is dishonouring them and not shining a light into that dark corner of life,” explains Knowles. “At its heart, it’s a love story about two young people who are abusive but they need each other. That’s common across different generations and societies and is why the play still speaks to people.”
Brigham believes that another reason why Look Back In Anger retains a contemporary relevance is through its searing examination of class and aspiration. At one point in the play, Jimmy chastises his “chinless” brother-in-law for being in line for a government position simply because he went to the right school.
“When you look at today’s Cabinet and see that 60 per cent of them are from privately educated schools you start to think, OK, maybe things haven’t changed that much,” laments Brigham, who draws comparisons between today’s generation of unemployed university graduates with the lack of opportunities on offer for
young people like Jimmy Porter in post-war Britain.
“In 1956 the challenge that Jimmy had was that there were very few places for him to channel that anger and frustration into. That’s no longer the case, so hopefully people will come and see the play and go: ‘Actually, that’s how I feel. Now what am I going to do about it?’”