For many writers, the stage is where they put the inadmissible in their lives; twisting it, obscuring it, trying to make sense of it. Here, John Osborne closes the fractured family photo album of Look Back in Anger to present us with something that is less explicitly autobiographical but no less personal or powerful.
Bill Maitland, a pinstripe-suited bluster of a man, is unravelling at the seams. A lawyer who despises the law and is fearful of his clients, he’s (barely) in charge of an office of disenchanted colleagues and secretaries he can’t help sleeping with. In between juggling the demands of a wife, a mistress and a daughter, he obsesses about taxis that don’t wait, complains about the effects of modern technology and pops pills with shaking hands. He’s his own crisis waiting to happen.
From the surreal opening scene – in which the befuddled lawyer breaks down the fourth wall to defend his existence to the audience as well as a sardonic barrister and a forbidding judge – director Jamie Lloyd teases out the parallels between being on trial and being on stage. He makes it clear that we’re watching more than just a middle-aged man grappling with the mess of his life: the artist is also in the box. The auditorium becomes a courtroom and the play, Osborne’s testimony; like Maitland, concealing as much as it reveals.
Inadmissible Evidence is undeniably talky, with minimal action and a flood of dialogue, most of which tumbles out of Maitland’s mouth. But the play’s scabrous humour ensures that its lead character’s rampant egomania and endless panic about his place in the world is rarely tiresome. Whether joking about his waifish daughter posting her virginity to Oxfam or lampooning uptight trainee Jones, he spews forth abrasively hilarious bon mots with the merciless precision of a man who loathes other people but needs them – if only for target practice.
The punchy energy of Osborne’s writing is perfectly embodied by Douglas Hodge as Maitland. Just as the script derives its power from an explosive knot of self-doubt, resentment and need, Hodge imbues his character with a kinetic restlessness. Body unnaturally contorted, his eyes bulging and his expression somewhere between a rictus grin and a man having a heart attack, Hodge paces the paper-strewn floor of his chaotic office with frantic steps, as if afraid that he’ll disappear if he stops moving. It’s an astonishing performance, mesmerising to watch.
The rest of the cast do well with characters that exist primarily to orbit Maitland as he goes supernova. Amy Morgan, as his assistant Joy, is a coquettish blond with a practised giggle and her eye on the advantage; Daniel Ryan is understanding, yet ultimately unbending, as fellow lawyer Hudson. Sadly, Karen Gillan stumbles as Shirley, giving too flat a performance as the secretary who’s learnt through bitter experience that Maitland’s neediness is not love, and to hate him for it.
During the play’s second half, a wide-eyed and plaintive Serena Evans makes an impression as three divorcing wives whose resemblance to each other blurs the line between reality and fantasy as Maitland’s sanity crumbles. Meanwhile, Al Weaver manages briefly to drag the limelight away from Hodge with a nuanced portrayal of a married man arrested for cottaging. Although Esther Hall only appears as Liz, Maitland’s mistress at the end, her quiet poise contrasts strongly with his freewheeling selfishness.
Sometimes, the production flounders like its main character. It’s awkwardly structured, with a second half that occasionally sags under a procession of monologues: in particular, Maitland’s rant at his silent daughter tips over into sub-Lear melodrama. But these are minor issues in Lloyd’s full-blooded production, which brings out the coruscating humour of the play while never neglecting its tragedy.
The relationship between a playwright and his or her audience arguably exists in the same tense space as Maitland’s desire to be wanted and his fear of being dependent on others. But unlike his protagonist, Osborne uses this anxiety as fertile ground from which to produce something powerful and enduring. As Maitland rages against the world in an office whose windows are as murky as his self-knowledge, pleading with his phone to ring, we watch a man make his fears of abandonment come true.