By Max Seddon
Once upon a time, this was a very important play. Not anymore. Gone are the days when the mere presence of an ironing board onstage was enough to shock audiences into walking out, and gone with it is John Osborne’s reputation as a dramatist. This is generally ascribed to how much the play has "dated", which misses the point and lets Osborne off the hook. His characters are either caricatured to the point of complete absurdity, or, when he aims for complexity, so shoddily drawn that they are plausible as woodcuts.
Jimmy Porter, Osborne’s angry young anti-hero, is a garrulous Frankenstein’s monster of incongruous component parts, gleefully vicious one moment, heartbroken the next, always crushed by an oppressive social order and suddenly, almost inexplicably redeemed at the end. In bringing him to life Tom Palmer has a Sisyphean task and, to his immense credit, he does so more or less intact. Porter’s vituperative speeches are far and away the best moments of the play, and Palmer succeeds in capturing both the soaring range and bitter depths his prosodical sweet-seller goes through. What he cannot do is convince us that the moods between them are natural, nor why his futile animosity has such a mesmerizing hold over the rest of the characters.
This is not really his fault, as most of the other characters are about as complicated as puppies. Jimmy’s wife, Alison (Beth Williams), goes beyond sadomasochism in lithely, lifelessly sopping up Porter’s abuse. Williams has many strengths as an actress, but this role plays to none of them. She is too quiet, almost never looks anyone in the eye or shows any emotion, and as the torment gets worse and worse, keeps running back to Jimmy out of blinkered, flaccid stupidity. Nick Budd, their clemently "decent" friend Cliff, does everything the script requires of him: that is to say, almost nothing. Peter Clapp, playing Alison’s ex-Army father, is the least convincing of the lot. True, his character is the most caricatured, but he is ineffectual, moving around like a camped-up public school boy covered in wet paint.
Alice Glover has a more complicated role to get her teeth into, but is still as much of an upper-class straw target as Alison. While she does at least get to display a range of emotions, and for sheer accuracy’s sake gives perhaps the best performance, it is impossible to give any coherence to her simultaneous concern for her friend and apparent glee she takes in counterweighing Jimmy’s petulant nihilism. And yet we are meant to believe that she can still be drawn in by his charm, and then up and leave him on the drop of the hat out of a sudden resurgence of compassion for Alison.
Who the hell acts like this, and why? Since Osborne never gives us a convincing answer, the play is so incredulous as to verge on the surreal. The diminishing perspective in the raked staging hints at this, but cannot really succeed because Osborne’s attempt at vraisemblance is an obvious failure. Perhaps Barclay could have improved on this by forgoing this half-on half-off realism, portraying it as the misogynistic fantasies of the 1950s Underground Man. As it is, he’s shown the script too much respect. Over three hours the didactic bombast loses its effect, the lyricism becomes repetitive, and you can see why nobody seems to be listening to Jimmy ranting half the time.
Has the play dated? Of course. It’s fifty years old. That’s no excuse. Since Barclay doesn’t attempt to go beyond the script, it weighs down the whole production. Palmer and Glover are as good actors as you’ll see in Oxford, and Williams and Budd are no small talents; but their abilities only magnify the play’s flaws. They deserve better, and so do you.