Writer: John Osborne
Director: Sean O’Connor
Reviewer: David Guest
Updating a classic play might be regarded by some as theatrical and artistic suicide, especially when the work in question is widely thought of as one of the greatest dramas written in the 20th Century.
However, the classy production of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, which finishes its first ever UK tour at Richmond this week, is something to admire and treasure. It is not so much a version that removes a crusty old work from the shelf and dusts it down for a present-day audience, rather it gives a contemporary spin to a work of art with a flourish.
Instead of reviving the 1957 play and tackling it as a period piece while trying to draw from it something which might resonate with an audience in the new millennium director Sean O’Connor has capably adapted the play by setting it in 1982 when the nation was focussed on the real-life drama of the Falklands War and not so interested in seeing a washed-up entertainer trying to raise a laugh with a tired and embarrassing act that would make Bernard Manning blush.
It works so well that audiences are likely to look back in mortification to an age where Thatcher’s Britain was reshaping the political and cultural climate and creating a new era every bit as frightening as that in the post-Suez world of Osborne’s original. Even more pertinently, the weary nation, battle-scarred by political turmoil and social change could just as easily be Britain in 2019.
Twenty-five years may have passed between the setting of the original and updated versions but the story of Archie Rice (the entertainer of the title) and the decline of the music halls remains a potent symbol of the decline of a nation even with the historic setting shifted. It may be the old breed of pub and club performers losing ground to sharper alternative stand-up comics in this new adaptation but the metaphor of a battered nation trying to rediscover its own identity loses none of its punch.
There may just be a couple too many projections of newspaper headlines onto a wall relaying blow by blow accounts of the Falklands conflict and the Iron lady’s responses, but O’Connor ensures every single one of them has meaning, especially when accompanied by the playing of 80s hit records. Rice also sings a number of songs from the decade himself (replacing the now possibly cheesy music hall numbers in the original) but there’s also good use of Noel Coward’s There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner, originally a post World War II ditty written to provide an antidote to “forced cheeriness in the face of imminent disaster” and losing not a jot of its zestful wit all these years later.
A key reason for the success of this new production is the casting of Shane Richie as Archie Rice. Audiences may know him better for numerous television appearances in prime time dramas and quiz shows, but here he draws on his long experience in the business and especially his early days in holiday camp variety. He knows how to work the audience and cleverly also conveys the attitude of an entertainer who realises when they have lost interest and his career is spiralling downwards.
This Rice is someone who craves the spotlight, seeking escape from the claws of the taxman and unforgiving crowds, and also not being able to leave his showbiz persona in the theatres, taking his coarse and cruel humour home to a volatile domestic setting. Richie’s portrayal of the tragic anti-hero is one of emotional depth and versatility, a showman trapped by too many aspects of his unravelling past.
His long-suffering second wife Phoebe is played by Sara Crowe, a beautifully judged performance of downtrodden angst. With every swig of gin and assault from the bitter realities of real life we see glimmers of hope in her eyes (just as we see the deadness and defeat in Archie’s) yet one senses that even the escape to a new life promised by the ending will not restore the careworn marriage or disintegrated domesticity.
There’s a rousing performance from the always first-class Pip Donaghy as Archie’s father Billy, an old-time comic now retired, but who can never quite forget his performing days of glory – even when delivering some of his lines he plays them as a routine in front of an imagined audience. He is a patriot and a shocking bigot with racist rants reflecting the red top newspapers’ banner headlines and Donaghy ensures that he is never less than three dimensional and utterly credible.
Diana Vickers also gives a stirring and intelligent performance as Archie’s daughter Jean, who has returned home after breaking up with her boyfriend, speaking of attending a peace rally in Trafalgar Square just as her brother, Mick, is off fighting the Argies. Vickers maintains a calm and collected air while all around her crumbles and she realises with outrage that she just doesn’t fit in.
With a stripped downcast in this production (gone are the showgirl Gorgeous Gladys, Archie’s generous brother Bill and Jean’s fiancé Graham) the remaining cast member is Archie’s other son Frank, played by Christopher Bonwell. It is a strong performance of a character who has objected to going off to fight yet hasn’t quite the spirit to join his sister in an anti-war march and we see the emotions of an angry but confused young man caught in the middle of everything.
Frustrating set difficulties meant that Archie was eventually performing against the backdrop of a brick wall rather than a theatre curtain that had seen better days, but lighting (Tim Mitchell) and sound (Chris James) managed to add colour and energy to the bleakness of the drama.
The portrait of a country in crisis in The Entertainer is repainted vibrantly in this new production, which deserves a West End run such is its poignancy and continuing relevance. It’s a reinvention that works well and gives considerable pause for thought more than 60 years after the play was first produced.
Runs until November 30 2019 | Image: Helen Murray