New Theatre, Cardiff
Opened 11 May, 2010

It is generally but mistakenly assumed that Look Back In Anger was John Osborne’s first play. In fact, his overnight success in 1956 came after several years of apprentice work. The first of these plays, The Devil Inside Him, written in 1948, was believed entirely lost until 2009, and has not been seen by an audience in 60 years. No wonder. It is not the stuff of overnight sensations, or of any agreeable sensations save derision.

Osborne draws on the Welsh side of his roots to create a small village world (although we only ever see a single parlour) at least as stifling as the middle-class conventions Jimmy Porter would later rail against. Here, however, the conventions and the railing alike are far less subtle than in his breakthrough work. (Less subtle even than that? Stop and marvel.) Mr Prosser is a shopkeeper with “Thou shalt not” graven on his heart, his wife subservient to him and their teenage son Huw the unholy fool around whom the story turns. When the maid Dilys leads Huw on then rejects him, Huw lashes out at her. Once his deed is uncovered, the third act serves as the occasion for a shouting match between the village’s minister (who makes Ian Paisley look like Gore Vidal) and the family’s lodger Burn, who has seen Huw’s primitive but powerful poetry and discerned the yearning soul thwarted by petty prohibitions. It becomes a matter of who can thump their tub louder: the minister with his copy of the Old Testament or Burn with his big stick marked “Author’s Message”.

Now and again Osborne gets a bit Rimbaldian, or a bit Lawrentian; a pinch of Nietzsche, or a dollop of Sartre. Principally, though, he writes in the key of Tosh major. With its garrulous comic “daily woman” and its crashingly obvious rhetoric, this is assembly-line work from the era of weekly repertory theatre. In choosing to revive the play as part of its intense first-year programme, the new National Theatre of Wales goes beyond audacity into rashness. I occasionally remark in reviews that a production is better than a play deserves; Elen Bowman and her cast of eight make an accomplished showing, but frankly any production is more than this play deserves.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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