19 AUGUST 1989, Page 37

Theatre 2

Look Back in Anger (Lyric)

Porter's problems

Christopher Edwards

Dreadful; the most dreadful per- formance I've ever seen.' And with that remark, the indignant lady walked out of this revival of John Osborne's epoch- making play. For one precious moment you had a sense of what it must have been like back in the heady Fifties when this work did indeed provoke protest and debate. Devotion too, of course. Tynan doubted whether he could love anyone who did not wish to see the piece. Here, apparently, was the authentic tone of

post-war youth. Well, the lady was wrong about the performance. Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson are about as good as you could wish (even if Branagh's Jimmy Porter lacks something of the raw urgency I had expected in the part). But as for the play itself, it seems toothless, irredeemably flat and sentimental.

Porter, in his long, 'excoriating' mono- logues, has lost the capacity to stir us to anger, applause or indignation. In his assaults on middle-class niceness, emotion- al inertia, the Church, Sunday papers et al he may sound full of vitriol but he is firing blank cartridges. Instead of the bitter working-class graduate fluently demol- ishing bourgois English pieties what we hear is the whine of a self-pitying sen- timentalist — at times he sounds a bit like Tony Hancock without the jokes.

This leaves his misogyny. Here at least we have some material which has not lost its capacity to shock. In fact the departing lady mentioned earlier seemed to be react- ing to one of Jimmy's juicier swipes at women. Branagh, only momentarily flus- tered, happily found that his diatribe con- tinued with a perfect rejoinder about 'the eternal flaming racket of the female'. It is also true that Jimmy's wife Alison is a combination of punchbag and doormat (Emma Thompson's performance is a study in bruised, genteel passivity) and that he treats her with terrible cruelty. But Jimmy Porter, woman-hater, has a soft underbelly of cloying sentimentality. What are we to make of their little ritual games with soft furry animal toys? Is the play, in the end, really about Jimmy Porter's per- sonal problems? Should we forget about the Angry Young Man and view the play as a sub-Strindbergian tale of tortured love?

Perhaps these questions show that the play really is some sort of classic that shifts its focus with each generation. But this reviewer found rant, and when the rant subsided it was replaced by soap opera. The playwright also demonstrated a com- plete inability to make any of the other characters come to life when Jimmy Porter is off stage — the sustained exchange between Alison and her girl-friend Helena, for instance, is one long string of clichés. • This revival is a disappointment. It is also almost completely sold out. Judi Dench directs on Jenny Tiramani's suitably claus- trophobic set.

`Bloody French air traffic control.'