Play all the right notes;Set play;Theatre

9th July 1999 at 01:00
LOOK BACK IN ANGER. By John Osborne. Royal National Theatre.

Dirctor Gregory Hersov is sure the play that spoke for mid-fifties youth still has a lot to say. "A 25-year-old itinerant actor wrote it," he says, "in three weeks. It's a fiercely individual piece of work."

The play mixes intense personal concerns (explored in Osborne's first volume of autobiography, A Better Class of Person), a response to the times and "a very strong sense of what he wanted to happen in the theatre". This gives theplay its "sense of energy, invention, improvisation and the language of the first post-war youth generation. It has the freshness of being at the beginning of a wave".

Rebellious sweetstall-holder Jimmy Porter (Michael Sheen), stuck in his Midlands attic flat with an upper class wife, Alison, (Emma Fielding) and the friendly Cliff (Jason Hughes ), finds emotional release playing the jazz trumpet. The music is important, and the whole play has the improvisatory feel of a jazz session. A strong structure allows each player to have conversations with others and then go off into solos, before finally coming back to the group. As a result, the tone can change dramatically over the space of a few minutes.

Anger is one of the few plays, says Hersov, that exists in the moment. Its characters build their lives on stage. And it isn't a one-character play with a cast of five. Everyone matters, and they're all at points of transition.

The visit of Alison's actress friend Helena (Matilda Ziegler) changes both women. Used to managing things, Helena gives Alison a voice, and becomes immersed in Jimmy's world - and in Jimmy. The two women then have to face each other over the betrayals and reach an understanding.

Jimmy's friend Cliff is a working-class Welshman whose childhood left him able to sit through the kind of volatile situation he finds at the Porters', with a "genuine full-hearted humanity".

Then there's Alison and her father. Colonel Redfern (William Gaunt) is not the Blimpish figure we might expect. Hersov thinks that as a young actor-playwright, Osborne relished creating a strong part for an older actor. The sun has set on his world of command, the Indian Empire (being brought up in the Raj gives Alison "individualism, imagination, idealism", Hersov adds). There's a strong father-daughter scene. He's sitting in this squalid place where Alison's packing her case. He's not seen her since she left home three or four years ago (there's a rebel in Alison too). It's a very human situation.

While Jimmy insults her, his wife irons on. Modern Alisons are more likely to down iron and strangle Jimmy with the cord. As an approach for today's actress, Hersov explores the jazz angle again. He tests out situations, as a jazz player renders a standard number in styles old or new. What still speaks to us is the temperament of youth: being lost, yet full of life, yearning and anger. And the "ferocious need to understand and probe friendships and the natureof love".

Lyttelton Theatre, Royal NationalTheatre from July 15.Tickets: 0171 452 3000.

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