John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger is often remembered for its association with kitchen sink realism. Marking the play’s return to London after 12 years, Sebastian Palka’s intimate production attempts to counter this aesthetic by placing its dejected characters in a partially abstracted Midlands flat.
Marta Licwinko and Tina Torbey’s scenic design combines vintage items with a few modern ones, the most prominent of which is a stack of present-day newspapers. The mercilessly offensive Jimmy (James D Fawcett) and his friend Cliff (Aaron Bennett) take turns reading them, moaning about a post-war world that can’t give them any cause to live or die for.
At the centre of Osborne’s 1956 play is Jimmy’s dysfunctional relationship with his wife Alison (Rowan Douglas). The delicate balance of the marriage gets upended by the arrival of Alison’s friend Helena (Holly Hinton).
Despite its intention to bring out the work’s contemporary resonance, Polka’s staging remains somewhat dated and unruffled. It tends to smooth out the play’s disquieting edges, toning down moments that should feel nastier or more hard-hitting.
While the cast often struggles to find the right pitch, it ends up giving a good sense of the characters’ competing attitudes towards their grievances. The self-indulgent histrionics of Fawcett’s Jimmy, in particular, make a noteworthy pairing with the quiet desperation of Bennett’s Cliff.
This is a revival that tampers with Osborne’s script in several ways, such as by representing Alison’s father only through his pre-recorded voice. Yet it provides a welcome opportunity to experience this landmark drama.