Cumberbatchweb – Look Back in Anger Review

Polly Stenham (Tusk, This Face) chose Look Back in Anger by John Osborne. The play premiered in 1956 at the Royal Court and was an instant sensation. Theatregoers used to cosy, genteel plays were startled at the emotional realism on display and the viciousness of the writing. In the press release for the play John Osborne was described as an “angry young man” and the moniker stuck and gave its name to a new movement in theatre, that of the “angry young men”- playwrights who weren’t afraid to tackle social and political issues and whose plays represented the working classes and their lives and loves for the first time on stage. The rise of the ‘angry young men’ such as John Osborne saw the likes of Terrence Rattigan (recently championed by Benedict in his lovely documentary The Rattigan Enigma) fall from favour as his work looked staid and old fashioned in comparison. Before the play started Polly Stenham commented on the irony of performing Look Back in Anger against the backdrop of the set of Posh – a wood panelled drinking club in Oxford, home of the Riot Club – she felt that John Osborne would very much approve.

 The play was a rehearsed reading – meaning that the cast sat in chairs reading from their scripts with a narrator (Julian Wadham) reading key stage directions. However, given that we were told that the cast had only met for the first time the afternoon before the level of familiarity some of the cast had with the script was truly impressive. Benedict especially was practically off book in parts. 

Benedict played Jimmy Porter. Jimmy is young, highly intelligent but a university drop out who runs a sweet stall with his friend Cliff  (Matt Ryan). Cliff shares the house with Jimmy and his wife Alison (Rebecca Hall). Jimmy is an extremely angry young man. A man desperate for a cause but born to late to fight for his country in the wars Jimmy spends his time railing furiously and impotently against the “chinless wonders” he reads about in the “posh” papers he buys on Sunday. He utterly loathes the middle classes epitomised by Alison’s well to do parents and her “bitch” of a friend Helena (Anna Maxwell Martin). For want of a better target Jimmy turns this anger on his sweet wife Alison. His diatribes about her are startlingly vicious as he continually provokes her to shrug off her polite middle class exterior, rid herself of her apathy and truly feel something. But Jimmy is devastated when Alison displays surprising inner strength and leaves him. But at least he has Helena (who he used to despise) and good friend Cliff to comfort him. But for how long?

As Jimmy Porter Benedict Cumberbatch was superb. Yes I know this site does have his name in its title but obvious bias aside it was a tour de force performance given that it had been formed in less than 24 hours. Jimmy Porter is a fiercely unlikeable character. Angry and vicious it’s hard not to utterly despise him for the way that he continually goads Alison chipping away at her with his cruel words until there is nothing left. His ugly, repulsively cruel rant in which he wishes an unspeakable fate on her which brutally rebounds on them both in the final act makes you really truly hate him. And yet…Benedict managed to make the character sympathetic. His Jimmy was angry, vicious and cruel but also tender, sweet, funny, clever, roguishly charming and surprisingly vulnerable with Benedict not being afraid to show how needy, hurt and scared Jimmy truly is. Jimmy’s speech remembering watching his father die as a child was utterly heart rending and Benedict absolutely gave it his all – crying on cue (as he did numerous times throughout the piece). 

Rebecca Hall is a beautifully understated actress and she played Alison with such grace and emotional honesty. Her devastation in the third act at the hand fate has dealt her was really upsetting to watch. Rebecca’s chemistry with Cumberbatch was electrifying and tender. I now simply cannot wait to see them as the Tietjens in Parades End- they played off each other wonderfully.

Strong support was provided by the other members of the cast making for an incredible powerful piece of theatre.