Simon Furness, a longtime admirer of John Osborne, is looking forward to playing Colonel Redfern in the 60th-anniversary Look Back in Anger. As the performance date approaches, he tells all

I haven’t felt so excited since I first heard The Sex Pistols sing ‘Seventeen’, as I do rehearsing Look Back in Anger for the Osborne and After festival. It’s difficult to see how any actor could not be delighted at the prospect of acting in this play. John Osborne’s reputation, and Look Back in Anger in particular, have survived the extremes of praise and opprobrium over the years. How many drab, dull epithets have been thrown at him in an attempt to discredit and marginalise his passionate rhetoric and uncomfortably emotional tone?

These days, to admit to liking Osborne’s writing is akin to confessing a pleasure in pornography, such is the recoil of dislike which the mention of his name occasions. Yet without his play, and the others which followed, as well as the undeniable contributions of George Devine and Tony Richardson, the Royal Court would have been turned into a hotel. Or a car park.

We like noise, it’s our choice

Osborne’s voice is immediately recognisable: questing, urgent, fierce and fun. You always hope he will go too far. He never disappoints. In these frightened times, where we have the power to say everything and yet contrive to say nothing, Osborne is a blessed panacea. If only the two Johns, Lydon and Osborne, had met. I suspect they might have had more in common than would seem possible.

Both men had a deep felt regard for England and a wish to wake it up. I hope people who see our Look Back in Anger will feel stirred and shaken.

It’s been a great pleasure to do some acting again after a long spell teaching. The other actors, bar one, Nick Skaugen who plays Cliff, were all previously unknown to me. I’ve found out much about the character I’m playing (Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern) through my actual relationships with them. Emotionally, art does perhaps imitate life.

Dominic Kelly, the director, has encouraged us to raise the scope of our acting so that it is magnified, truthfully but theatrically. We have improvised scenes from the characters’ lives which don’t appear in the script but inform our understanding of those that do. I found a visit to the National Portrait Gallery very helpful. It gave me a physical counterpart for my character’s words on the page and a physical model from which to work which suggested to me a way of behaving in response to the other characters and a ‘springboard’ into the creation of a kind of behaviour that wasn’t my habitual one.  This behaviour was also something I could incorporate in improvisations which involved the many characters who are referred to but who do not appear in the play.

Simon Furness LBiA rehearsal

Simon Furness in an improvised rehearsal scene in which Simon Donohue, who is playing Jimmy Porter, takes on the role of Colonel Redfern’s late father

 

I don’t pretend ’cause I don’t care

Colonel Redfern is referred to dismissively but also fondly before his one and only appearance in Act 2, sc 2. We know from Jimmy and Alison’s comments earlier that there was an orchestrated campaign to halt their romance, conducted by Mrs Redfern (who doesn’t appear in the play but who did – memorably – in our improvisations!). This play is nakedly autobiographical: similar efforts were made to break up the relationship and halt the marriage of John Osborne to Pamela Lane, daughter of two Bridgwater shopkeepers. He and Lane eventually decamped to Derby Theatre where Lane’s star as an actor rose even as Osborne’s inexorably declined. This helped fuel the resentment between them, a resentment which hangs over the play itself.

It’s a tricky matter bringing a character to life who, until he appears, exists only in terms of other people’s opinions of him. Redfern has driven a long way, alone, to collect his daughter in response to an urgent telegram issued by her friend, Helena. Has Alison’s husband left her? Beaten her? These are questions which must burn in his mind as he drives to collect her, with a sick and ailing wife behind him and an uncertain future in an England he now barely recognises.

Redfern and Jimmy Porter, ostensibly very different, have in fact a strange, grudging kinship which each acknowledges, however obliquely. Though they never meet in the play, each is necessary to the other and if Jimmy is Osborne as a young man, then Redfern is redolent of Osborne in his later years, when he was glibly tarred with the cheerless and pinched descriptions of ‘Little Englander’, ‘misogynist’, ‘Club bore’, etc.

Oh god save history

Such views are reductive of Osborne and Redfern. Both are men of deep feeling and sensitivity, who yearn perhaps for a past that existed only in dreams. Invented or real, it is a past which has meaning for both men: an Edwardian past of striped blazers, linen, crisply starched shirts and the long rosy glow of Empire. It was also the golden age of the music hall venerated by Osborne, an enshrined in his play The Entertainer. Cliff and Jimmy’s exchanges in the play recall the cross-talk music-hall acts Osborne must have witnessed in the company of his beloved father, Tom Godfrey, who died when he was 10.

The potential bond between Jimmy and his father-in-law is implicit in the play

The potential bond between Jimmy and his father-in-law is implicit in the play

 

Osborne has for years been a near-mythical character to me, representing something of an England I dimly remember from those occasions when my father, also a soldier, was stationed in rural areas. I enjoyed a brief correspondence with the author in his spidery hand. I saw his last play, Déjàvu, on its pre-London tour. Possibly he had no longer the audience of his youth but his passion, vigour and refusal to go quietly remained undimmed. He is as English in his way as Vaughan Williams, Elgar, country lanes, and the sound of cattle at dusk.

I miss him but am glad to say goodbye, acting in a play which will be performed not far from where he rests in Clun Churchyard, among Housman’s ‘blue remembered hills’. Ave atque vale.

 

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