Andrew Henry gives a tour de force performance in Red Line Productions’ well executed take on the British classic, Look Back in Anger.
Henry plays Jimmy Porter, a disillusioned young Englishman living in near-poverty with his wife and their flatmate in a one-bedroom flat in the Midlands. Well-educated but devoutly loyal to his working-class upbringing, Porter’s blood is permanently at a boil, bubbling over as he rails against everyone and everything. The primary target of his anger, however, is his wife, whom he ‘rescued’ from the trappings of the upper-middle class.
For her part, Mrs Porter – Alison – is aloof and cold, a brick wall against her husband’s tirades. She seeks comfort in the kindly affections of their Welsh lodger, Cliff Lewis, who also allows Jimmy’s rants to wash over him, believing he is the glue that keeps their relationship together. Into the fray enters Alison’s childhood friend, Helena, for whom contempt begins to breed something more troubling.
To say that Andrew Henry steals the show is not entirely true; the play really is Porter’s to own and it takes a certain level of talent to carry it off. But Henry achieves that most difficult of theatrical tasks – making the audience feel something more than pity for an intensely unlikeable character.
Henry’s Porter is at times like a toddler throwing the most epic of tantrums. His physical presence is commanding, despite spending the majority of the play with his hands in his pockets, slouched and brooding. John Osborne’s dialogue is verbose and rhythmical, challenging in that it requires pace and volume to really deliver the intended characterisation. Henry manages brilliantly. Every single utterance is packed with believable passion. His accent is impeccable and his energy is reminiscent of a big cat poised to pounce.
Robin Goldsworthy (Cliff) is the perfect foil for Henry – gentle, calm and soft around the edges. Goldsworthy does well with the tricky Welsh accent, and it does not distract at all from his performance. Together, Goldsworthy and Henry’s physical scenes are played believably and show the benefit of choreography (thanks to Scott Witt); their vaudevillian romp in the third act is a real highlight.
While both Melissa Bonne (Alison) and Chantelle Jamieson (Helena) hold their own on the stage, their performances are over-shadowed by Henry. Neither completely inhabits their character the way Henry does, although they both handle the dialogue well.
The actors are given the perfect play-space by Jonathan Hindmash, whose exceptional set design both confines and defines the characters. The Old Fitz stage, already a tiny space, is reduced by a third to create a cramped, mildewed apartment. The peeling wallpaper and ripped rug bring a profound authenticity to the room, but it is the sloped ceiling and it’s dirty glass skylight that truly transport the audience; this English terrace is so well-rendered you can almost hear the downstairs neighbours. The attention to detail is also evident in the newspapers – the subject of much of the dialogue – which look like they could have been lifted straight from a 50s newsstand.
Lighting and sound are beautifully represented in this production. The slanted window allows lighting designer, Ross Graham, to subtly change the mood throughout, while sound designer, Katelyn Shaw, works wonders with the wireless.
Co-directors Lizzie Schebesta and Damien Ryan are to be commended for bringing this sixty-year-old play back to the stage. For the modern Australian audience, Look Back in Anger provides an insight into the societal machinations that have led to an era of increased violence against women. The Australia of the 1950s was not so different to England, both countries having emerged from two world wars to find themselves lost for a cause. The children of the war veterans, now young adults, were faced with infinite, hard-won possibilities above which lingered the ever-present threat of the Cold War.
Our young men were also grappling with the learned behaviour that a woman’s place was in the home, while that same woman began to assert her independence.
Faced with these dual challenges to their masculinity, men reacted instinctively – they grew angry. (In fact, Osborne’s Look Back in Anger spawned a new wave of authors, known collectively as Angry Young Men, whose writing mirrored their generation’s disenchantment with traditional British society.) Women found themselves in the firing line, absorbing the verbal (and physical) blows as their husbands vented their anger. Whether they believed they deserved it or not, women collectively endured these encounters for years with a quiet acceptance. Duty and history called for a woman to stand by her man, to create the perfect home while he toiled and provided. If that included being an outlet for his rage, so be it.
There is no such war evident between the co-directors, however, as this production delivers seamlessly on all levels. It is well-staged, making great use of the small space, with direction that is purposeful and measured. My only wish was that there was just one interval – there are two, 10-minute breaks – because the action is so intense it is almost spoiled by a return to the real-world pub upstairs. That said, you will feel like a stiff drink (or two) so maybe the intermissions are a necessary evil.
A fine production worthy of the 60th anniversary of the play with a stellar performance at its heart.
Look Back in Anger is playing at The Old Fitz in Woolloomooloo until 10th September. For more information or tickets, please visit: http://www.oldfitztheatre.com/look-back-in-anger/
The reviewer attended opening night on Friday 19th August.
Photo credit: John Marmaras