Chapter, Cardiff Wed 12 April 2006, 8pm, £3 on the door
Jimmy Porter – Dean Rehman
Cliff Lewis – Huw Davies
Alison Porter – Rebecca Knowles
Helena Charles – Stacey Daly
Colonel Redfern – David Prince
|Why, one might wonder, has this iconic classic of the British stage, the play that changed theatre here forever, not been performed in Wales since it first exploded on the cultural scene fifty years ago ?The answer, I suspect, is to be found in Michael Kelligan’s brave but doomed-to-failure production at Chapter as part of his On the Edge season: Look Back in Anger is no longer relevant, isn’t that good a play and is best left to lie as an historical landmark along with Andy Warhol’s films, Yes albums and Damien Hurst’s formaldehyde fish of later decades.
It is, of course, important, but it must have been difficult for anyone in the audience who didn’t yet qualify for a bus pass to see what all the fuss was about. Only if you had suffered the blandness of mid-century British theatre could you properly appreciate the breath of fresh air that was The Royal Court and Look Back in Anger.
Hence the dilemma: are we seeing a period piece or a play for all time ? Are there Jimmy Porters out there now – and what would they sound like ? Kelligan’s cast on the whole, alas, suggested that their characters were like creatures from outer space or some tv costume drama, with an Scots and a Welsh actor (Rebecca Knowles and Stacey Daly) trying to sound like posh totty, a Welshman (Huw Davies) playing a Welshman – and a raw Cardiffian pretending to be… well, what is Jimmy Porter (Dean Rehman) but an over-erudite, snotty, elitist, sexist bully who unconvincingly claims to have working-class roots ?
This script-in-hand production suffers from the limitations of the genre – reading out that mix of wit and pomposity makes it seem even more wordy – but at least it reveals the faults of the original: the unbelievable characters, the essentially fascist attitudes of its anti-hero (and of his creator) dressed up as radical moral protest, the dependence of the well-made play for its structure, the self-indulgent lack of self-editing.
It also brings out some of the subtexts we hadn’t necessarily noticed then in the euphoria of seeing a play where the status quo was so challenged – the very Englishness of it emphasised by the Welsh outsider-observer, the scarcely-suppressed gay relationship between Cliff and Jimmy (confirmed years later when the model for the character outed his and Osborne’s relationship), the anti-female bile of not just verbal abuse of the women in the play but their victim status, the conflict between the personal and the political, for example.
In a performance where only the briefly-seen father-in-law (David Prince) and Cliff are played with any conviction, presumably because both are characters closer to the world we know, the crucial disappointment is the usually impressive Dean Rehman’s Jimmy. Rehman, we know, can do Angry Young Man but twenty-first century AYM rather than 1950s AYM – unable to get into the part completely (though he has some good moments) he has to read from the book too much to allow himself the space to persuade us that this obnoxious young man is owed any sympathy, respect or even attention.
Kelligan, perhaps, could have used his own experience to make the play more urgent – and to correct his actors’ mispronunciations (menagerie, charade, meringue, hysteria, matelot, for instance, as well as the English accent, all defeated the cast) and unsuccessful attempts to be English.
With just a few days rehearsal, of course, we should not expect perfection, although these seasons have yielded some cracking performances, so maybe the idea of commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the day theatre changed for ever was just too ambitious.