Tag Archives: John Osborne

“Look back in anger” at the White Bear Theatre

Given its fame, John Osborne’s 1956 play is performed less than might be expected. This chance to see the show that became synonymous with the “angry young men” who changed British theatre is, therefore, welcome. Director Sebastian Palka’s production is unflinching in its commitment to the piece.

The young married couple and their friends, from conflicting backgrounds, whose flat share is a “battleground”, allowed Osborne to interrogate the hypocrisy and injustice of his time. The anger and passion here are clear – credit to Palka and his team. And special mention to Marta Anna Licwnko and Tina Torbey, whose set design conveys a sense of off-kilter claustrophobia and poverty. But whether you find all this – and how dated it feels – interesting becomes an important question.

The lead role of Jimmy Porter is a massive part for recently graduated James D Fawcett and he tackles it with a bold directness. For Jimmy is, frankly, odious and tedious. Unbelievably selfish and cruel to all, this character still shocks. His misogyny, presumably based on class, is extremely uncomfortable to watch, his arrogance is repulsive.

While the challenge from the play is clear – its “bite, edge, drive” are all present – the production lacks humour and steadfastly denies any empathy for its lead character. The latter is understandable, as Jimmy says some truly awful things. But his pain only becomes real in the final moments, robbing the text of nuance. Surely Jimmy should come across as a lot smarter, or at least wittier? The key might be his wicked irreverence, with tongue-in-cheek talk of his “sensibilities”, but all this is too seldom foregrounded.

Thankfully, strong supporting performances help out. Another professional debut, Aaron Bennett, gets a great deal from his part as Cliff, who is slowly alienated from his friends. And the two female performers are very good indeed: Rowan Douglas brings plenty of layers to the role of Jimmy’s wife, pinned behind an ironing board for too long, while, as steely and snobbish Helena, Holly Hinton manages the play’s faintly ridiculous conclusion well. In Helena’s eyes Jimmy is “horrifying and oddly exciting”. It’s clear the production shares her fascination with the character and the play. But despite some sound work here, I found little to enthuse about in this famous piece.

Until 14 March 2020


Photo by Nicolas Chinardet

“The Entertainer” at the Garrick Theatre

Once more stepping into the shoes of Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh is Archie Rice in this final production of his tenure at the Garrick Theatre. Branagh is more than up to the role of Rice – a brilliant fictional creation who somewhat overwhelms John Osborne’s end-of-empire themes – and gives a sterling star turn that provides value for money.

Archie is a “tatty old musical hall actor” on the wrong side of the law. He says he’s never done anything “really dishonest” but, apart from having good taste in beer, he is fairly unsavoury. Branagh doesn’t shy away from the tawdry life of a travelling player plying a dying trade, or the awful way this ageing philanderer treats his wife and neglects his children. Yet he still manages to bring out Rice’s charisma and admirable self-knowledge.

Greta Scacchi
Greta Scacchi

Joining Branagh in the limelight is Greta Scacchi as the long-suffering wife. This is a revelatory role for the actress. Leaving glamour aside, she utterly convinces as the dowdy, down-at-heel shop assistant with a drink problem in a superb performance that combines humour and depth. Then comes Archie’s father, Billy, a more successful performer in his day – a role into which Gawn Grainger injects possibly too much humour. Overall, Rob Ashford’s direction of this family drama is masterfully done.

Tightly focused scenes of tension aren’t Ashford’s only trick. Christopher Oram’s grand set (praise, too, for lighting designer Neil Austin) is all about the theatre. The drawing-room action happens as if in the green room: an effective device to show how Archie is always performing. It’s a brave move by Osborne to insert Archie’s comedy routine into family arguments (these jokes were bad even in 1957) and underscores the unfulfilled existence of ‘the entertainer’ both on and off stage.

Sophie McShera and Kenneth Branagh
Sophie McShera and Kenneth Branagh

Maybe it’s his elders being so apolitical that annoyed Osborne. Archie’s sons provide the contrast, with a tragic tale and a strong performance from Jonah Hauer-King as the next generation, who enjoy a better education but face just as precarious a future. It’s really an angry young woman, Archie’s daughter, played by Sophie McShera, who is supposed to be the key. If her anger at the Suez Crisis hasn’t stood the test of time, it reminds us that we all have political responsibilities. There may not be quite the firebrand spirit nowadays to make this play incendiary, but this fine production is still well worth seeing.

Until 12 November 2016


Photos by Johan Persson