Porter's progress

Theatre byKate Kellaway

John Osborne used to dislike people treating Look Back in Anger as a monument. It is easy to understand why he felt as he did: anger is of its moment; it disdains preservative. The play's "moment" was 1956, and many still feel that it changed the history of the British theatre.

Jimmy Porter, an angry but educated working-class man married to a middle-class girl, railed against British society and got the rise out of the English public that he kept failing to get out of his wife. Nobody would question that the reception of the play was a drama in itself, but why put it on yet again and at the National? It could only be, I decided in advance, a nostalgic decision and a dangerously safe choice. I could not have been more wrong. It is a shame that John Osborne is not alive to see Gregory Hersov's tremendous production. It is better than any I have seen, including Kenneth Branagh's capable version a few years ago.

The curtain goes up on the expected seedy bedsit, but this is set within a bigger space of blazing red, a ruby barn (designed by Robert Jones). The famous ironing board looks a little marooned in the space, but the fiery frame is a perfect symbol for the incendiary fervour of the play. Jimmy Porter says: "One day, when I am no longer spending my days running a sweet-stall, I may write a book about us all. It's all here. Written in flames a mile high." And Jimmy's wife, Alison, was first drawn to Jimmy because "everything about him seemed to burn".

Look Back in Anger is, as Osborne himself once said, about two people in love, a portrait of a bad marriage. It is a subject that does not date. The clash of classes does not date, either. But this production depends on a tour de force by Michael Sheen as Jimmy Porter. He is many actors within one body, each of them fighting to get out. He is angry young man and little boy lost (he needs a mother and a better job). He is funny, clever, cruel, damaged, right about most things. But he does not know how to love. "How I hate Sundays," he says, like a swimmer coming to the surface after almost drowning. He puts on vicious accents to punish his already crushed wife. He veers between apathy and rage. At times, it is as if he were trying to bring about death by words. But when he sees Alison suffer, he is like a child again. And Sheen's face actually seems to change colour, to whiten with pain.

Emma Fielding is marvellous, even sympathetic, as Alison. It is not an easy part. She is stuck for the first act behind an ironing board, with a husband who has all the good lines. It must be hard, at least at the outset, to make her more than a wimp. But Fielding's body language is wonderfully precise and evocative. Her hurt imperative stare and her twitching feet interpret her silence for us. We are drawn to watch her just as her husband does, wondering when she will crack. Alison punishes herself for being alive. It would be nice to feel that there are no women like her any more, but I don't believe it.

The Porters share their bedsit with Cliff Lewis, a genial Welshman who can handle everything Jimmy throws at him. Jason Hughes can handle everything the part hurls at him, including doing a hilarious "randy mouse" dance in response to one of Jimmy's insults. Matilda Ziegler is priceless, too, as Helena Charles, Alison's great friend and an actress. She wears an alarming purple suit and matching stilettos but appears not to feel out of place in the grotty bedsit. She treats it as if it were her stage, keeling between the sideboard and the kitchen table like a tipsy chorus girl. She is not afraid of Jimmy. She answers back but picks each of her words up delicately, as if with sugar tongs: "Why do you try so hard to be unpleasant?"

As Colonel Redfern, Alison's amiable father, William Gaunt is excellent, too. He shows that tolerance is uncomfortably close to complacency. Jimmy Porter castigates Alison's father and people like him for "looking forward to the past". It's a telling line in a production that conflates time in such a way that looking back and forward become almost the same thing.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, I took tea with Pinochet