Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Opened 18 October, 2011
John Osborne was the laureate of self-loathing; even Jimmy Porter’s rage at the rest of the world in Look Back In Anger is ultimately revealed as displacement. And Osborne’s purest avatar is Bill Maitland, the middle-aged lawyer whose personal and professional meltdown is portrayed in Inadmissible Evidence.
It is not a pleasant or a tidy play even by Osborne’s standards. Its naturalism ebbs and flows as convenient, a point emphasised by director Jamie Lloyd from the outset: Maitland enters his office to be immediately assailed by a judge and prosecutor who, as the audience took their seats, had been lurking onstage beneath dust-sheets. Other characters are put on hold whilst Maitland rails against everything but most of all himself. Every woman seeking a divorce looks the same: like, we infer, his own wife, as the recited details of their petitions intercut with his defences of his own marital conduct. In the course of two acts he drives away his brace of legal subordinates and both secretarial staff in his office, a number of clients, probably his wife, certainly his mistress and a second-division bit on the side, and seemingly even the teenage daughter whom, beneath the ranting, he adores (and who is given not a word to interrupt his torrential vitriol).
Osborne wrote fine, bravura protagonists, but all too often his supporting players are there simply to cue the principals. Most noticeably here, Karen Gillan is far too underused in her major stage debut to ever get into the swing of things as secretary Shirley; her performance is far more stilted than the Gillan we are used to as Amy Pond in Doctor Who. Above all, incessantly fountaining bile simply is not as compelling as the playwright believed: however energetic it may be, in the end it is revealed as self-pity and narcissism. What redeems this evening is Douglas Hodge as Maitland. This is a character always aware of how he is repelling all comers, and doing so with, not glee, but certainly animation and dynamism. He has an arsenal of tics, twitches and self-interruptions, of exaggerated voices and operatic double-takes… he is the very personification of an itching scab that is never allowed to heal, and this is meant as praise. It is one of the performances of the year, and the real reason to see this revival.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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