Time has not been kind to John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which now looks like a celebrated former beauty ravaged by age. What little of her lost loveliness survives in the arc of the eyebrows, the tilt of the nose, serves only as a hurtful reminder of vanished glory. The permutations and paradoxes of love, as played out by a quirky quartet, remain, even if drained by repetition and competition; but the rant against British social class discrimination falls on, if not quite deaf, no longer deferential ears.
Fleeing the Classic Stage Company revival at intermission, and looking back more in sorrow than in anger, I wondered how much of the original 1956 success lay not in quality so much as in novelty, and in a production strongly directed by Tony Richardson, and strikingly cast. As Jimmy Porter, the garrulous but charming malcontent, there was Kenneth Haigh, whose histrionic and personal attractiveness softened his self-centered boorishness. As the aristocratic girl, Alison, marrying him well beneath her station, the lovely Mary Ure (then Mrs. Osborne) was luminous almost to the point of translucence as she endured Jimmy’s gibes with a stoicism nothing short of heroic.
As Cliff, the trusted and torn friend of both, Alan Bates had not yet developed his gruff persona, and was a wryly temperate buffer zone between embattled spouses. I cannot summon up the two other players in such sharp focus, but recall their fitting in seamlessly. With such memories, how not to be disgruntled by the present masquerade?
Reg Rogers has his uses in some roles, but not as a leading man whose appeal must mitigate his obstreperousness. Where Jimmy should be taut and aquiver, Rogers is a crazed Jack-in-the-box, his excessive and exaggerated outbursts unrelieved by charm. There is something flabby and grotesque about him, his face, in intense moments, drooping into expressions that look painfully like stupidity. As Alison’s trouble-making friend, Helena, Angelina Phillips contributes her own brand of annoying smugness. Enid Graham, as Alison, looks confoundedly British but, like the others, manages the accent only with certain intermittencies. The set by Narelle Sissons, a designer whose chief virtue appears to be cost-saving, is wrong in more ways than I can enumerate, and Jo Bonney’s staging is, when not overheated, pedestrian.