Writer: John Osborne
Director: Sean O’Connor
Reviewer: Kelyn Luther
This production of The Entertainer, John Osborne’s play about Archie Rice, a faded vaudevillian dodging the taxman and dodging the reality of his son fighting in Suez, is the first to update the play’s setting. Director Sean O’Connor has set the play in 1982, during the Falklands war.
Rather than Archie Rice being a music-hall man, he’s now a Bernard Manning-type comedian, wheeling out mother-in-law jokes and grubby innuendo. With the rise of alternative comedy (we hear a sound bite clip from Not The Nine O’Clock News as an example, but many spring to mind) and the volatile political climate, it’s clear Archie’s act won’t survive for much longer.
Shane Richie, being very familiar with the light entertainment world and associated with the role of loveable Archie Moon in EastEnders, is a great piece of casting. Richie shows how Archie takes his sexist jokes home with him- whilst they sound cringy in a comic routine, they’re devastatingly cruel in Archie’s house. His second wife Phoebe (Sara Crowe) is a nervous wreck; Crowe gives a heart-breaking performance of a woman who wants to make something of herself but is ground down by her marriage. Her Phoebe is sympathetic rather than pathetic.
The characterisation of Archie’s father, Billy, is another nod to light entertainment of the era. Donaghy channels Alf Garnett in Billy’s rages against the ‘Poles’ who live above him. For his version of The Entertainer, O’Connor was spoilt for choice of which jingoist phrases and jokes he rips from the headlines of tabloid coverage of The Falklands (one of the most famous being The Sun’s ‘Gotcha!’) and he makes a clear point of how tabloids prey on the fears and hatred towards the opposing country and the Rice family’s attitudes reflect that.
The odd-one-out is Archie’s daughter Jean (Diana Vickers), clad in dungarees and sporting a CND badge. She attends political rallies; Archie’s only act of rebelling against the system is his twenty years of tax-dodging. Famous for her breathy vocals in The X Factor, Vickers acquits herself well in a dramatic role and her character’s ability to face reality is a breath of fresh air as the rest of the characters are stuck in the past.
Occasionally the eighties’ culture references overshadow the dramatic content, though it provides good historical context for younger audience members. The pop songs Archie sings as part of his act work well within the dramatic context (and Richie has a great voice) and they’re not distractingly obvious (he doesn’t break out into a Wham! song). Overall, it seems the pay-off of exploring The Entertainer within a different political context is worth it. It’s a ‘state of the nation’ play, and O’Connor keeps the political anger of the original fresh and current, saving it from the fate of being a museum piece.
Touring nationwide | Image: contributed