Derby and the Angry Young Man - John Osborne’s masterpiece returns to Derby Theatre

Look Back in Anger at Derby Theatre in 2016

Look Back in Anger at Derby Theatre in 2016 - Credit: Archant

60 years ago a play reputedly inspired by life in a cramped Derby bedsit took the theatrical world by storm. Derbyshire Life looks back at the circumstances surrounding its creation and looks forward to the exciting new production Derby Theatre presents this month

Derby actor Alan Bates as Rupert Birkin in Women in Love, pictured in Derbyshire Life, December 1968 . Alan met John...

Derby actor Alan Bates as Rupert Birkin in Women in Love, pictured in Derbyshire Life, December 1968 . Alan met John Osborne at Derby Playhouse. After starring in Look Back in Anger on the London stage, Alan went on to tour Moscow and New York with the same production, enthralling foreign as they had done English audiences - Credit: Archant

THE legend goes that when the curtain went up on Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre on the opening night in May 1956, people gasped – because they saw an ironing board on stage.

Thanks to John Osborne, theatre would never be quite the same again.

Osborne reportedly wrote his seminal play on a deck chair in Morecambe over just 17 days, pouring out vitriol against the smug British middle class in general and his wife Pamela Lane in particular.

Look Back in Anger features Jimmy Porter, a disaffected working class young man. The savage writing and harsh realism was a shock to the system for a theatre world still stuck in drawing rooms. It gave rise to the ‘angry young man’ generation who were inspired by Osborne.

John Osborne on stage in 1954 at Derby Playhouse (John is far left)

John Osborne on stage in 1954 at Derby Playhouse (John is far left) - Credit: Archant

There’s no doubt that Look Back in Anger is a key moment in theatre history and one that couldn’t have happened without Derby.

Osborne was working as a stage manager and occasional actor at the old Derby Playhouse in the mid-1950s, living in a cramped bedsit with his actress wife Pamela Lane, who was a leading lady in rep at the same theatre and who was having an affair with a local dentist.

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Without Derby there would be no Look Back in Anger, so securing the rights to bring the play back to the stage in the city to celebrate its 60th anniversary was a must for Derby Theatre’s artistic director Sarah Brigham.

She says: ‘When I knew it was 60 years I wanted to take that opportunity but was informed there might be a West End version. I thought “Oh no – but wouldn’t it be great to do it in Derby anyway?” I had lots of conversations about my take on it, the idea of doing a companion piece, and fortunately they said, “That’s great, you have to do it”.’

Sarah says that from the moment that ironing board was first revealed, the play has held an important place in stage history. ‘Audiences were used to seeing French windows and the upper classes. This was the first time they were seeing real life on stage.

‘I read Osborne’s autobiography which details his time in Derby with his wife. I then went to our archive, to research Osborne’s time working for the Playhouse. As well as being stage manager he was also in traditional rep productions as an actor and there are images of him in those productions.

‘I don’t know if he was a good actor though. He became stage manager and then a writer, so I think his calling was probably more behind the scenes. He went around in the old rep system but also did a few films for which he had some success.’

Sadly, despite the Derby connections, Look Back in Anger didn’t make its debut in the city that inspired it.

Sarah says: ‘The legend goes that the Playhouse board turned it down as they thought Alison was too close to Pamela Lane, who was their leading actress in rep at the time and so they wanted to keep her happy. It could, and perhaps should, have been staged here first but 60 years later we are making up for it.’

Instead, Look Back in Anger was first seen at the Royal Court, but even then there was a strong Derby connection with Alan Bates, the city’s finest acting son, taking the role of Cliff.

Sarah says: ‘They showed ten minutes of it on the BBC and lots of people watched it and that started a wider conversation about how amazing it was.’

It eventually led to a belated Derby production. ‘They did do a version of it in the early 1960s,’ says Sarah. ‘But I read the Derby Telegraph review of it and they didn’t like it much. I hope our production will bring the heart of the play to the stage in a more urgent way.’

Sarah’s 60th anniversary adaptation is likely to be better received and she’s confident that audiences will relate to Derby Theatre’s Look Back in Anger. ‘It’s a really well made play that’s about searing passion – about people with something to say, who have strong feelings, and what happens when you put them together. It’s actually quite explosive.

‘I think a lot of people have heard of it, but aren’t sure what it’s about beyond an “angry young man”. I have never seen a live production of it as it’s not done that often at all, only filmed versions. If we get it right, it’s great drama and you sit there wondering where it’s going to take you. It’s also challenging for us these days when we expect a bit of music every ten minutes. This grips you simply with great characters and a really great story.

‘I think as a play, it still chimes with a contemporary audience. It is a period piece – it makes references to one character’s service as an air raid warden! But once you get to the heart of the play, it is about human relationships and the class system and ultimately that is as relevant now as ever.

‘I think what’s important is how you play Alison. If she’s a wet flannel and she just takes it all then it can be really uncomfortable. But the way Emma Thompson played it in the film with Kenneth Branagh, she uses her silence as a weapon. She’s fighting him but in a different way and it’s because of the class difference. For him, it’s all anger and he’s spitting feathers and she fights by staying cool and keeping that veneer up and that’s actually more interesting than him battering her down. There has to be a reason why she stays, even in 1956. She’s a woman with money, she would just go. There has to be a reason that’s a bit more interesting I think and that’s what we are exploring.’

Sarah believes the plays roots in the city come across strongly. ‘It feels very Derby, because even back then it was about putting real people’s voices on stage. It was about something relevant to the community and asking what those people have to say – that’s what is still important now.

‘I think it fits into what we have been doing at Derby Theatre recently, it’s not that different from Brassed Off in that way. And in making a companion piece, Jinny, we are adding that contemporary voice. What we realised in the research for that piece is that nothing has changed.

‘In Look Back in Anger, Jimmy comes out of university and says “I didn’t go to a red brick university I went to a white-tiled university” but he’s working on a sweet stall. Now, all over the UK, a lot of young people pay £9,000 a year to go to university but where are they working, where are they going? The world isn’t that different now. Often it’s who you know and how you carve your path once you’re in the real world.

‘So now that I have started reading and researching it, it’s much more relevant than I ever thought it would be when I chose to mark the anniversary.’

The play is a co-production with Royal Octagon in Bolton but Derby is taking the artistic lead.

‘It’s great to be co-producing but not to be on someone else’s wagon,’ says Sarah. ‘The show will be made in Derby and then toured to Bolton. They said “It’s Derby’s show, we get that. You make it then bring it to us.” It’s a great sign that a highly acclaimed venue such as this trusts us artistically.

‘Neil Irish is designing our production, who did Christmas Carol, and the easiest thing for us to do with the set would be to make it really predictable and dull but actually we asked ourselves how we could take it forward so we have created a front room that goes out into the audience as more of a floating platform.

‘I also see this front room as a kind of boxing ring and I want to show what the characters are like before they go into that room and what they are like when they leave. It’s about layering on something extra to give our audience a different experience.’

Sarah believes that Osborne’s place in theatre history is secure and Look Back in Anger showcases his talent.

She says: ‘He was a fresh contemporary writer who was putting the working class voice on the stage for the first time, which was brilliant and exciting. I think everyone would say that structurally Look Back in Anger has some challenges in it that, if he was writing now, he might tighten up a bit. But he should be respected for what he was and he went on to do things like The Entertainer, so he was a great voice and an intelligent brilliant man.

‘Michael Billington’s eulogy for his funeral showed just how much respect he had in the theatre world. He shifted us into a new era and should be respected for that.’

Is theatre now waiting for another John Osborne to shake things up and offer a fresh perspective?

Sarah says: ‘I think the challenge nowadays is that we aren’t all focused in the same way on seeing those voices just from one theatre, like the Royal Court. I think those new voices are there. Lucy Skilbeck, who made Joan for us last year, is a really exciting, interesting voice but she’s having to do it on a small scale in a little studio theatre and getting the critics out to see it is impossible. And there are five million other things happening all over the country just like that. The theatre world still tends to look in the traditional places for the next “hot thing” but there are new voices in Derby Theatre Studio every Friday and Saturday night for example. What we need to do is encourage audiences to go and see the new, slightly experimental material they might not naturally choose but this might mean they uncover a real gem. In doing Jinny, we are trying to help our audiences do that. We are saying “Here’s a traditional play and you know the title but why not come and see this piece of new writing as well? – 40 minutes of brand new writing.” We are hoping to nudge the audience in that direction.’

But, ultimately, this production is about celebrating a true stage landmark in the place that brought it to life. ‘It’s about putting the play back on the map in the place it belongs. And hopefully the rest of the country will go “Oh Derby, Look Back in Anger, I get it.” Perhaps then the penny will drop that great things can come out of here and always have done. It shows this has been a great theatre for many, many years.’