Writer: John Osborne
Director: Rob Ashford
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
In his distinguished career, Kenneth Branagh has not strayed for too long from paths trodden by Laurence Olivier before him, perhaps making it inevitable that he would get round one dayto Olivier’s most famous contemporary theatre role, Archie Rice in John Osborne’sThe Entertainer.
The play first appeared at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1957, the year after Osborne’s Look Back in Anger had rocked the establishment with the rants of “angry young man” Jimmy Porter, a role revived on the London stage in 1989 by Branagh. Both plays emerged from apost-warBritain of austerity and social change, but, althoughRob Ashford’s new production makes no attempt to update it, The Entertainer can be seen to be built on fewerthemes that are specific to its own era and, as such, it is thericher and more multi-layered of the two. Every generation witnesses change and the powerful image of a performer clinging to the stagelongafterhis audience has begun to depart still resonates.
It is1956 and BritishMusic Hall is all but dead, a metaphor perhaps used by Osborneto highlighta decaying classstructure and a crumblingempire.Billy Rice (Gawn Grainger), now an elderly,racist curmudgeon, has retired from the stage, but his son, Archie, still treads the boards in places such as the often-mentioned West Hartlepool,living a shambolic life andboasting that he has not paid income tax since 1936. WhenArchie appears first, he is tap-dancing inside a beam from a single spotlight behind him, in effect showing usa man who hascut himself off from reality existing only inside a showbiz cocoon.
Branagh strikes a very precise balance in performingArchie’s song, dance and joke routines. He is just about good enough to suggest that the character could have had a passable act in hisheyday and awful enough to make a full house in the Garrickseem out-of-place. Archie’s signature song, Why Should I Care?, alsoreflects his attitude tofamily life. He tells his daughter, Jean (Sophie McShera), that he is “dead behind the eyes”, unfeeling but, when tragedy strikes the family, a subtle change in Branagh’sdemeanour and a suppressed shriek reveal thatcallousness is just another part of his act.
Acceptinghis own fallibilities,resigning himself to doing nothing about them andresorting toperforming to his family when he should be attending to their concerns, Archie is notan “angry middle-aged man”.However, Jimmy Porter’s spirit is revived in his son Frank, played with earnest conviction by Jonah Hauer-King. Frank has served a prison sentence for refusing conscription and now he looks on his family from the perspective of an outsider andgives voice to Osborne’s cynical views on British lifeand hissarcasticpatriotism.
Archie’s second wife, Phoebe, is step-mother to Jean and mother to Frank and another son, Mick (unseen) who is a willing conscript, serving in the army in the Suez conflict. Greta Scacchibrings out Phoebe’svulnerability touchingly and shows us the pain of a woman who wants little more than to be treated withdignity and respect, but findsherself neglected and always likely to lose everything that shevalues because of her husband’s philandering with younger women.
Christopher Oram’s set design over-emphasises the play’s theatrical context, placing a second ornate proscenium arch at the rear of the stage and electronic boards at the sides,numbering scenes 1 – 13 as if they are turns in a variety show, Thisprovides anunnecessary distraction but, overall,Ashford gives us a worthy revival of Osborne’s cutting and often sour examination of the links between show business and real life.
Runs until 12 November 2016 | Image:Johan Persson