Sex and politics make a class act

7th July 2006 at 01:00
Aleks Sierz looks back on the 50th anniversary of a classic play that changed the face of British theatre - and you can see John Osborne's top drama restaged in Bath this summer

Look Back in Anger. By John Osborne. Theatre Royal, Bath. From August 16 to September 2. Tel: 01225 448844. Education email:

This year is the 50th anniversary of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, the Royal Court play that began the revolution in post-war British drama, heralding the era of realistic kitchen-sink drama.

Jimmy Porter, who runs a sweet stall in a Midlands town, lives with Alison, his upper-middle-class wife, and his Welsh friend, Cliff, in a bedsit. As Alison does the ironing, Jimmy harangues both with his opinions.

Exasperated by his cruelty and aggression, Alison leaves Jimmy after her friend, Helena, arrives. Jimmy then has an affair with Helena.

Director Peter Gill says: "The play's overall theme is how people of one class are trying to muscle into another. It's difficult to see this play outside of its historical context: it was a time when lower-middle-class boys were trying to get a part of the action, the so-called Angry Young Men. It was about this creative group from the lower-middle class making a space for themselves."

What Osborne does, says Gill,"Is to give voice to the neurotic or frail alpha male of the 1950s, and shows what that kind of man feels - their terrified paranoia of the duplicity of girls from the upper-middle class.

It's all about hetero desperation. In the 'no brave causes' speech, Osborne makes poetic images out of that lost masculinity."

In order to illustrate the differences of this bygone age, Gill points out that, when the set was being designed, the question arose of where the characters kept their clothes. But there was no need for large wardrobes because, "You cannot believe how little clothing people would have had.

Jimmy probably had two shirts - wash and wear - trousers and a mac. That's all."

Jimmy, says Gill, is motivated by "a need to continually and incontinently express himself. He is desperate to be articulate. Occasionally, he manages not only to articulate his own feelings, but also to say something that many other people felt: a new feeling that, in the mid-1950s, was completely stifled by the Establishment of the time."

By contrast, Alison is "one of the bright upper-middle class girls. In those days, they mostly went to less- good schools than their brothers, were taught manners, a bit of French, and were not expected to do anything except take a secretarial course."

Look Back in Anger offers young people "a glimpse of the past and the sexual politics of another age. The play's ending is a bit sentimental - but those right-wing satirists are always soggy about something," says Gill.

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