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Anger Ignited Fresh By That Old Play| The Guardian May 8 2006
 
Back street Hamlet talks bosh," said one of the original reviews of John Osborne's Look Back In Anger. Yet 50 years to the day the play was first performed - May 8, 1956 - the Royal Court was packed in a deeply moving birthday tribute. As Ben Walden, who hosted the evening, pointed out, no one would be more surprised than Osborne himself that what he called "that old play of mine" was still being celebrated.
What is hard to estimate is the influence Look Back had on 1950s youth; as a Midlands teenager, I made the pilgrimage to London to see it and naively stood on the Royal Court steps inspecting the faces of people emerging from the first-house on a Saturday to see if they had been changed by the experience. And, frankly, I expected the Court last night would be filled with old angries rheumily recalling times past.
In fact, the bulk of the audience was young; though whether this was a tribute to Osborne or the presence of the current Doctor Who, David Tennant, as Jimmy Porter is hard to say.

The evening began with a touching prelude: David Hare's reprise of the lecture "I Have A Go Lady, I Have A Go", he gave at Hay-on-Wye in 2002. He struck exactly the right note of affection tinged with irony. Above all, Hare attacked the "spiteful revisionism" that, in recent years, has tended to downgrade the historic importance of Look Back In Anger.

Hare also grasped the point that Osborne is "our poet laureate of lost opportunity, of missed connections and of hidden dread, of what he himself calls the comfortless tragedy of isolated hearts". I have rarely heard one dramatist speak more movingly of another.

If the evening proved anything, it was Osborne's genius was for excavating emotion. And you saw that clearly in the three long extracts from Look Back itself. In 1956 people saw the play as an attack on a geriatric establishment culture. But, as Anthony Page, who directed it in the 1960s, reminded us, it was essentially a Strindbergian play about two people finally achieving contact.

That came out in the extracts directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins and Ian Rickson. David Tennant's lean, hungry Jimmy was filled with a flailing, neurotic energy. He prowled with barefoot vitality and, like Hamlet, was full of wild and whirling words, but he made you feel everything he did was directed at Anne-Marie Duff's provocatively silent Alison, stuck behind her eternal ironing-board.

I've long seen the play as a battle of equals rather than a misogynist rant; and Duff rammed home the point when she told Helen McCrory's Helena: "Oh, don't try and take his suffering away from him - he'd be lost without it." But the great moment came at the climax when Tennant, standing stock still, slowly turned his eyes towards Duff's Alison as if they could forge a new relationship out of shared suffering.

This was good enough to make you wish the Court had given us a full-blown revival to mark its 50th anniversary year. But this evening was an overflowing birthday tribute and included Corin Redgrave reading Tynan's original review and Damien Lewis as Osborne, Simon Day as Tony Richardson and Nicholas Le Prevost as George Devine evoking the 1956 production.

Osborne's playwriting career may have ended on a long, melancholy adagio. But this was an evening that reminded us why Look Back In Anger was a landmark play and what Osborne brought to the British theatre: a phenomenal gift for language, a sharp social awareness and above all a capacity for unguarded emotion. What he called "that old play of mine" memorably lives on.

Sam Marlowe At The Royal Court| The Times 8 May 2006
 
FIFTY years to the day since Jimmy Porter first despaired of the lack of any remaining “good, brave causes”, Look Back in Anger’s iconic ironing board was set up again on the Royal Court’s stage for last night’s tribute to John Osborne’s trailblazing play.
The original first night, on May 8, 1956, was a far from celebratory affair. Osborne called it “a dull and disappointing evening”; the critics, an ecstatic Kenneth Tynan notably aside, were underwhelmed.

Yesterday redressed the balance, vigorously reasserting the play’s watershed status and demonstrating how bracing and, yes, even shocking, its white-hot fury remains.

First came David Hare’s lecture, “I have a go, lady, I have a go”, first presented in 2002. In a deeply personal, highly emotionally engaged paean from one playwright to another, Hare painted Osborne as a social scrutineer and unforgiving portraitist of failure, romantic in his spirit of defiance.

Above all, he emphasised Osborne’s determination to feel — and to make his audiences feel — a quality which continues to challenge cynicism and self-irony today.

The second half, directed by Ian Rickson, combined archive film, autobiography, reminiscence from Osborne’s godson, Ben Walden, and from Anthony Page, who directed much of the playwright’s work, and extracts from the play.

Look Back in Anger’s genesis was entertainingly traced, with Damien Lewis as Osborne, and Nicholas le Prevost and Simon Day as George Devine and Tony Richardson. Corin Redgrave revisited a role that he has played before onstage when he delivered Kenneth Tynan’s laudatory review.

But it was Jimmy Porter’s voice we most wanted to hear. As played by David Tennant, mouth open in incredulity at the complacency and small-mindedness of his world, he resembled a fierce, frail baby bird. His lightness and affability made his outbursts of cruelty and impotent rage the more horrifying.

He was superbly supported by Anne Marie-Duff’s pale, dignified Alison and Steven McNicoll’s likable but maddeningly ineffectual Cliff. The decline of Helen McCrory’s Helena from sexy confidence to tremulous self-loathing was almost too raw to watch.

Apt for the best-known work of a writer of whom Hare remarked: “Say the name John Osborne, and stick your fingers into the socket. Stick them in, and sizzle.”

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