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John Osborne: His early plays spoke to the young, but how well has his work aged? (©Frank Pocklington/Getty Images)

In recent months we have had major London revivals of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea and Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. In the New Year the Old Vic will be celebrating Stoppard’s 80th birthday with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. These are landmark plays by Britain’s leading post-war playwrights. What do we make of them today? Do they still have the same impact that bowled over critics and audiences half a century ago?

What is striking is how differently these productions have been received. Kenneth Branagh’s revival of The Entertainer had very mixed reviews. The Observer called it “sluggish” and “off-key”. “There is too little fluidity throughout,” wrote its theatre critic, Susannah Clapp, giving the production just two stars. Michael Billington, in the Guardian, hailed Branagh’s performance but called it “a misjudged production”. 

This was being kind. The production was deeply disappointing. The director, Rob Ashford, has been successful on Broadway, but from the catastrophic opening number on, he clearly thought Osborne’s play was set in glamorous Las Vegas rather than a rundown 1950s English seaside  resort. And Kenneth Branagh looked wrong as Archie Rice. Branagh has had such a stellar career that he clearly cannot imagine what it would be like to be a hopeless failure like Rice. He looked too fit and handsome, he seemed too smooth and charming, a world away from Osborne’s womanising wreck.  

However, the critics missed the key questions. Whatever the problems with the production, what about the writing? Has the play aged well? More seriously, 60 years on, has Osborne aged well?

Osborne had a huge impact in the mid-1950s with two hits in two years, Look Back in Anger (1956), followed by The Entertainer (1957). The reviews are the stuff of legend. “I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger,” wrote Kenneth Tynan, the Observer’s influential young theatre critic. “It is the best young play of its decade.” Tynan also praised The Entertainer. “Mr Osborne has had the big and brilliant notion of putting the whole of contemporary England onto one and the same stage,” he wrote. “He chooses, as his national microcosm, a family of run-down vaudevillians. Grandad, stately and retired, represents Edwardian graciousness, for which Mr Osborne has a deeply submerged nostalgia. But the key figure is Dad [Archie], a fiftyish song-and-dance man reduced to appearing in twice-nightly nude revue.” 

Osborne was one of a new generation of young British playwrights who launched a revolution in British drama, what Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times called “The Great Uprising”. It was partly, of course, the tone, anger and sense of a country on the slide. More important though, it was as if with Osborne, Arnold Wesker and Shelagh Delaney, the working class had suddenly appeared centre-stage. Instead of the genteel drawing-rooms of Rattigan and Noël Coward, there were new plays about kitchen workers, music-hall performers and East Enders.

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