You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Look Back in Anger

"Everything about him seemed to burn," we are told of Jimmy Porter (Michael Sheen) not long into Gregory Hersov's latest production of "Look Back in Anger," this director's second staging in four years of the seminal 1956 John Osborne play. (The previous one was at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.)

Jimmy Porter - Michael Sheen Alison Porter - Emma Fielding Helena Charles - Matilda Ziegler Colonel Redfern - William Gaunt Cliff Lewis - Jason Hughes

“Everything about him seemed to burn,” we are told of Jimmy Porter (Michael Sheen) not long into Gregory Hersov’s latest production of “Look Back in Anger,” this director’s second staging in four years of the seminal 1956 John Osborne play. (The previous one was at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.) But Jimmy isn’t the only fiery participant in a compassionate and searing National Theater production that couldn’t feel less like a retread or also-ran.

Those dreading this play after its glum 1989 remounting — directed by Judi Dench and starring the then-married Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson — are in for a particular jolt. Under Hersov’s startlingly confident hand, Osborne’s cri de coeur seems far more than a theatrical icon getting yet another dusting-down, while the staging, in its own, quiet way, is as revolutionary as Osborne’s text once was. After all, it’s not every production of “Look Back” that dares to look ahead psychologically, re-evaluating the play less as a celebration of Jimmy Porter than a critique of him.

It’s tempting, of course, to think of Jimmy as the late author’s own exalted alter ego, especially now that Osborne’s posthumous persona is so inextricably linked with the more acerbic broadsides of his best-known creation. But if one can separate the writer from what he has written (not always easy with this play), a subtler, ultimately far more crushing portrait emerges of two fantasists, all too fully acquainted with life’s pain and pathos, who have spent so much time goading one another that they have learned, in some despairing way, that the game is all they have.

That explains the renewed poignancy of an ending that can be hard to stomach, in which Jimmy and his wife Alison (Emma Fielding) are reunited following an interregnum in which Alison’s seemingly eternal place by the ironing board is given over to Helena (Matilda Ziegler), a sexy interloper who is not beyond a well-turned barb of her own. To be sure, there remains an inevitable sense of male wish fulfillment in Jimmy’s ability to change partners at will, even without the panegyrics in his defense that both women dutifully trot out, Linda Loman-style, demanding that attention be paid.

But as reconceived by Hersov and enacted by the blazing young Sheen, in the male performance of the year so far, Jimmy may indeed be (as Helena says near the end) a displaced radical born out of his time. And yet he’s driven as much by fear and terror as by his often-nasty need to tease. (If anything, Osborne lays on the amateur psychologizing a shade thickly, twice trumpeting Jimmy’s self-defining speech about this jazz-obsessed sweet-seller’s acquaintance with death.) And whereas in his Broadway-bound perf as Mozart in “Amadeus” Sheen suggested the mania of genius, his posture this time around is defensive and wary, the provocateur himself in need of protection.

Add to that a crucial charm that feeds the comedian Jimmy would like to be, and there is every reason for our sustained interest in a character who it’s all too easy to want to smack: In his own hurtful way, Jimmy commands Alison’s love and respect, and Sheen goes on to gather up the audience’s, too.

This “Look Back” is no one-man show, even if the verbal parry-and-thrust of the play sometimes seems intended to leave its other four players running in place. As Jimmy’s “beautiful, great-eyed squirrel,” the excellent Fielding is nobody’s doormat or fool, any more than Helena — in Ziegler’s clear-eyed reading of her — is simply the other woman. The rounded assessments extend still further to Jason Hughes’ sweet-natured, highly self-aware flatmate Cliff and on to William Gaunt in the small but important role of Alison’s father, a representative of the old order whose ironic self-regard isn’t in fact far from that of Jimmy, his supposed social inferior.

The staging is, indeed,full of such gentle reverberations, even if its expert physical components (Howard Harrison’s infernal lighting, particularly) leave no doubt about the rainy Midlands hell that the Porters inhabit. “Gentle” may seem an odd word to apply to so celebrated a dramatic excoriation of the well-bred play that preceded it. But it’s perhaps the ultimate irony of an evening packed with them that anger is not — for all Sheen’s fury — what one takes away from this production of “Look Back.” As Jimmy and Alison cradle one another at the final curtain, their bodies almost dwarfed by Robert Jones’ sloping (and first-rate) set, one is shocked to discover two very lost and frightened children at the center of the play in which the English theater grew up.

Look Back in Anger

Lyttelton Theater, London; 898 seats; $:29 ($46) top

Production: A Royal National Theater presentation of a play in two acts by John Osborne. Directed by Gregory Hersov.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Robert Jones. Lighting, Howard Harrison; music supervisor, Paul Higgs; sound, Adam Rudd; fight director, Malcolm Ranson. Opened, reviewed July 15, 1999. Running time: 2 HOURS, 50 MIN.

Cast: Jimmy Porter - Michael Sheen Alison Porter - Emma Fielding Helena Charles - Matilda Ziegler Colonel Redfern - William Gaunt Cliff Lewis - Jason Hughes

More Legit

  • Broadway sales Fun Home

    Concord Music Buys Samuel French in Theatrical Megadeal

    Concord Music has acquired Samuel French, a theater publisher and licensor that has represented musical hits such as “Fun Home,” and the plays of Tennessee Williams and August Wilson. The music company will form a new unit, Concord Theatricals. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. The merged business will boast not only Samuel [...]

  • Hugh Jackman'To Kill a Mockingbird' Broadway

    'To Kill a Mockingbird's' Starry Opening: Oprah, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and More

    The Shubert Theatre in New York City was filled on Thursday night with Oscar winners, media titans, and, of course, Broadway legends who came out for the opening of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The starry guest list included Oprah Winfrey, Barry Diller, “Les Misérables” co-stars Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Gayle King, Magic [...]

  • Pat Gelbart Obit Dead

    Actress Pat Gelbart, Wife of 'MASH' Creator, Dies at 94

    Pat Gelbart, widow of late “MASH” creator Larry Gelbart, died surrounded by family at her home in Westwood, Calif. on Dec. 11. She was 94. Gelbart was born in Minneapolis, Minn. in 1928 as Marriam Patricia Murphy. When she met her husband, Gelbart was an actress, known for the 1947 musical “Good News,” in which [...]

  • To Kill a Mockingbird review

    Broadway Review: 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

    Against all odds, writer Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher have succeeded in crafting a stage-worthy adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic American novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The ever-likable Daniels, whose casting was genius, gives a strong and searching performance as Atticus Finch, the small-town Southern lawyer who epitomizes the ideal human qualities of goodness, [...]

  • Isabelle HuppertIsabelle Huppert Life Achievement Award,

    Isabelle Huppert, Chris Noth to Appear on Stage in 'The Mother'

    Isabelle Huppert will appear opposite Chris Noth in the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “The Mother.” It marks the U.S. premiere of the show. “The Mother” was written by French playwright Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton. Huppert, an icon of European film, was Oscar-nominated for “Elle” and appears in the upcoming Focus Features [...]

  • Could Anyone Follow ‘Springsteen on Broadway’?

    Could Anyone Follow 'Springsteen on Broadway'? Here Are Five Things They'd Need (Guest Column)

    After 235-odd shows, with grosses in excess of $100 million, a Special Tony Award and a hotly anticipated Netflix special debuting Sunday, “Springsteen on Broadway” is an unprecedented Broadway blockbuster. As with any success in entertainment, the rush to replicate The Boss’ one-man show reportedly is under way, with a consortium led by Live Nation, CAA [...]

  • Clueless review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Clueless' the Musical

    How does a musical stage adaptation of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film comedy of oblivious privileged teens, “Clueless,” play in the era of female empowerment and millennial engagement? True, the principal skills of lead teen Cher Horowitz are the superficial ones of mall shopping and makeovers. But her sweet spirit and independence, plus some added P.C. relevance, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content