After the stunning curtain-raiser of Jinny, Sarah Brigham’s accompanying production of Look Back in Anger has a great deal to live up to. Brigham’s strategy in staging the sixtieth anniversary revival of Look Back in Anger alongside a new response piece seems to be to allow a comparison across time; where Jinny is relentlessly contemporary, Look Back in Anger is precisely of its moment, down to the opening radio broadcasts detailing the Suez Crisis. Perhaps because of this, the production works better in tandem with Jinny than as a stand-alone play, albeit whilst retaining much tension and explosive potential.
The production picks up on Osborne’s own history in Derby when writing Look Back in Anger, and the specificity of the setting (as the programme notes, the flat Osborne shared with Pamela Lane is exactly opposite the Derby Theatre’s current rehearsal studios) captures a very specific provincial malaise. References to St. Pancras and the Midlands root Jimmy in Derby, unable to escape while his Welsh best friend and Home Counties girlfriend retain at least a notional mobility.
Neil Irish’s set eschews walls, with hollow frames instead indicating space for doors and a black vacuum surrounding Jimmy and Alison’s living room-cum-bedroom. Characters appear when mentioned (Ivan Stott’s Colonel Redfern in particular has a looming presence long before his actual arrival) and wait outside the flat, a move which perhaps leaves Jimmy even more stranded and alone within the confined space than peeling wallpaper would. While the sounds of church bells and the music of the radio allow the wider world to enter into the room, the detail of the clutter (marked around the edges with untidy piles of books) contrasts well with the black surroundings to make this a particularly concentrated bubble.
As Jimmy, Patrick Knowles writhes and fidgets. While Jimmy Fairhurst’s laconic Cliff lounges comfortably in one of the downstage chairs, Jimmy swings himself on the arms of the chair, sprawls and shuffles. His sense of confinement is painful to watch, and his joy at moments of action is visceral – when he and Cliff play-fight, Jimmy comes to life and laughs. At these moments his sudden release spills over into over-aggression, as in the clumsy push that leaves Alison with a burn on her arm. Yet Knowles understands that Jimmy’s sense of boundaries is at least partly self-imposed – he confines himself to certain areas of the stage, rarely coming into the bed or kitchen areas. He is looking for bars to rattle, and finds even tighter spaces within the already small set.
Jimmy’s restlessness defines the action of the production, and the calm performances of the rest of the cast throw this into relief. Augustina Seymour is quiet as Alison, gentle in voice and striving to be amenable. Fairhurst’s Welsh lilt renders Cliff unthreatening, always softening the aural atmosphere. Daisy Badger is sharper and more aggressive as Helena, but even she is rarely ruffled beyond an attitude of equanimity. And Stott is affable and resigned as Alison’s father, his performance a shrug of confusion at a world he doesn’t fully understand. Yet the problem with this dynamic is that the production itself becomes too gentle. Knowles bears the entire responsibility of keeping up the energy, but every time the script requires him to shift down a gear, the whole production loses its stakes. As strong as the performances are, the play is little more than polite conversations when Jimmy is offstage.
The production’s calmness does serve to exaggerate the play’ class politics, with the relative restraint of Colonel Redfern and Alison in particular a reflection on that family’s embarrassment at Jimmy’s behaviour. With so much unspoken between father and daughter, the sudden embrace between the two as Alison packs is loaded with grief. Later, the quiet of Helena and Alison as they sit together after Alison’s return carries the weight of the broken faith between the two. Helena is clearly angling for Jimmy from early in the production, keeping her eyes fixed on him and, after Alison’s departure, pointedly taking her stuffed squirrel off the bed so she can sit beside Jimmy’s bear. While the transparency of Helena’s motives makes her difficult to sympathise with, her role-playing (especially when gleefully ironing, in a twisted enjoyment of working class chic) perhaps suggests that Alison’s return to her previous life can be viewed hopefully, she experiencing for real the pleasure that Helena only performs briefly.
The production doesn’t pursue all the angles it implies fully – most notably, Alison’s concern for Jimmy’s well-being comes across briefly and tantalisingly as that of a carer, given the speed of Jimmy’s mood changes and his awkward, childlike apologies, and such a reading would be an unusual and provocative spin on what binds the two together if followed through. But this is a solid take on a landmark play, and coupled with Jinny offers a compelling diptych of Derby responses to aspiration, entrapment and frustration.
Look Back in Anger is on at Derby Theatre until 26th March 2016. Click here for tickets.