The Entertainer – Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

Writer: John Osborne

Director: Sean O’Connor

Reviewer: James Garrington

The country is in turmoil. The people are divided, with strong views on both sides of the argument. Parliament is split with some fervent and vocal opposition to the Government’s plans.

The Rice household is equally divided – Billy Rice gets all of his news from The Sun and rants constantly about immigrants, Mick Rice is away fighting a war that many people oppose, and Mick’s sister Jean has been to a demonstration in Trafalgar Square.

John Osborne’s classic The Entertainer was first produced in 1957 at a time when the Suez Crisis was still very fresh in the national memory. For this current production, there’s been a significant amount of rework done – as well as the cast size being reduced from the original, the time has been changed. We’re now in 1982, and it’s set against the backdrop of the Falklands conflict – and it works extremely well, with some beautifully-conceived ideas from director Sean O’Connor with the use of projection and choice of music being particularly impressive.

Archie Rice is a worn-out comedian past his best – the sort who could once fill a theatre but end up trying to scratch a living to almost empty houses before fading into obscurity. Time, technology and social awareness have all taken their toll, and his style of entertainment no longer draws the crowds. His jokes are inappropriate, borderline offensive at times, the sort of material that was commonplace in the 1970s but not so much by 1982, and which these days is relegated to the club circuit. This is a role that Shane Richie makes his own in a brilliantly memorable and well-judged performance. On the one hand, we have the theatre and on the other, the Rice home, a horribly familiar depiction of a dated provincial living room – out-of-fashion wallpaper, a picture of the Queen on one wall, a once-ubiquitous Tretchikoff on another, and Union Flag bunting at the window. The action moves between the two, with the material in each theatre scene echoing the domestic scene alongside. The upbeat start gives us the impression of a fairly successful entertainer before the veneers of domestic harmony start to strip away to reveal the realities of Rice household life, their descent accelerated by the news they receive. As each spiral unwinds, Richie’s Archie unravels with it, the once confident performer displaying the turmoil going on inside. His routines become less assured, his comedy more bitter. This is Richie at his best.

Richie is surrounded by a strong cast. Pip Donaghy is well cast as Billy, Archie’s bigoted father who was himself once a song-and-dance man before he saw the way things were moving and got out of the business. Diana Vickers gives a well-judged performance as Jean, the daughter who is trying to act as normally as possible and keep the peace as her elders start sniping at each other, with Christopher Bonwell as her brother Frank, quietly observing from the background and wrapped up in himself. Finally, we have Alice Osmanski, on for Sara Crowe as Archie’s second wife Phoebe. Osmanski provides a perfect foil for Richie’s Archie – emotionally abused by her husband, turning to drink and trying her best to find a way forward for the family despite resistance to the things that are on offer, this is a beautifully-portrayed image of a woman desperate to cling on to some hope despite being totally aware of the reality of her situation

Should we laugh at the dated humour, the Alf Garnett-style comments? Does that make us complicit in their offensiveness, or are they now a mere pastiche, an echo of the past that we hope has gone? Does it make us wonder whether these views have ever really gone away, and indeed are now resurfacing? As Osborne’s masterpiece portrays the collapse of Archie’s life, echoed by his stage performances, it’s actually reflecting the collapse of the country, the rise of Thatcherism and the resulting impact on many people – and serves as a timely reminder that the so-called good old days were, for many, not so good after all.

Runs until12 October 2019 and on tour Image: Helen Murray

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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