Writer: John Osborne
Director: Sean O’Connor
Reviewer: Maggie Constable
Milton Keynes Theatre this week entertains us with an updated version of John Osborne’s classic play, The Entertainer, starring Shane Richie. Audiences will not be disappointed.
Originally set at the time of the Suez crisis, we now find ourselves transported to the early 80s, the backdrop this time being the Falklands War and a Britain run by the Iron Lady, with all that this entails. Archie Rice is an old-fashioned comedian who cannot cope with the world around him nor the changes in standup comedy. His son, Mick, has gone to fight in the war whilst, ironically, his daughter, Jean, has been protesting against it. Jean is also spending time with the family to get away from marital difficulties. Archie’s wife, Phoebe has had more than enough of his liaisons with other women and his futile business deals, but her overriding concern is the safety of their son in the South Atlantic. Everyone in this family seems to have a problem and alcohol, for most, seems to be the solution. Archie’s dad, Billy Rice, appears to be the only family member who can cope.
Archie has undertaken a Summer season but his rather particular brand of humour does not engage his audiences which are now accustomed to alternative comedy. Some are offended by his outdated jokes with their sexist and racist references. Things have got to change for Archie, both personally and professionally. And they certainly will, but how will this irate, middle-aged man who is stuck in his ways cope? Suffice to say that he will learn that his actions have consequences.
Shane Richie gives us all the complexities of Archie Rice. Thus we have an unpleasant man but one who is somehow easy to like nonetheless. He is a sad and pathetic individual who constantly performs to hide his true self and we cannot help but be drawn in and feel sorry for him. Richie’s performance details all these aspects convincingly and without overstating it. He is at his best in this type of role and, at times, it is almost as if the part was written for him.
The ensemble cast is equally solid. Diana Vickers as Jean, Archie’s disillusioned daughter by his first wife, gives a very believable performance, especially in the scenes with her father. Her anger is palpable. There are, however, moments when her speech is somewhat rushed and it is difficult to catch all the words.
Sara Crowe, in the role of Archie’s beleaguered wife Phoebe, is excellent as the anxious and fussy matriarch. Hers is a strong performance without being over the top and she is especially good at acting the drunk. Indeed, none of the cast overdoes the drunkenness.
Pip Donaghy brings us Billy Rice, Archie’s dad and does so with total credibility. Christopher Bonwell’s performance as Frank is a quiet one for a quiet part. He is the clever foil to the rest.
Right from the start, we are made aware of the Falklands backdrop with a recording of Thatcher’s announcement that the country is to go to war with Argentina. Throughout we are reminded of this with visuals depicting newspaper headlines and pictures from the South Atlantic islands. Simple but very effective. Union Jacks pervade and reinforce the nationalism which was ever-present at the time. Arguments between Jean and Billy about the war reflect the divisions in the country. The change of era works perfectly and demonstrates that this is a piece of writing which still holds true no matter what period in history it is set in. Sean O’Connor has carried out a masterful job both in the updating of the text and in his subtle direction. The relevance for us today in Brexit-torn Britain is not lost.
This is a play which is hard, nay excruciating, to watch but well worth the effort.
Runs Until 7 September and on tour | Image: Helen Murray