The Entertainer by John Osborne
Having a potentially wet weekend to myself, no chance of the planned car boot sale taking place, I looked to find myself a theatre ticket for a day out. I went to the Garrick to see Ken Branagh’s company do Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade last December (see here). I wanted to book for the last play in his season there – The Entertainer by John Osborne which opened last week but was planning to see it at the cinema (Oct 27 for live broadcast) – so imagine my delight to find a seat plumb in the middle of the second row available for the Saturday matinée.
Having read and reviewed Osborne’s play about an ‘angry young man’ Look Back in Anger for Shiny (see here) and watched two different versions of it on Youtube for research, and having seen pictures of Laurence Olivier as Archie Rice (right), the failing entertainer – I knew roughly what to expect from The Entertainer.
My dad tells me he saw the original stage production with Olivier in 1957, which was recreated for Tony Richardson’s film in 1960 – of which Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington says: “While it’s a valuable record, however, it cannot recapture the magnetism of the stage performance, with its mixture of physical bravura and deep despair.” Indeed, Wikipedia tells me that Osborne wrote the role of the angry middle-aged man at Olivier’s suggestion.
How would Branagh do? – First a short introduction to the play…
Set during the Suez crisis of 1956, Archie Rice is struggling to keep his career as a comic entertainer afloat, performing his innuendo-filled patter and songs in between the exotic dancers in a nude review. He’s married to Phoebe with whom he has two sons, Mick who is currently out in Suez, the other Frank – a pacifist who did six months in prison for refusing to join up. His elderly father, Billy, who had also been an entertainer, lives with them.
As the play starts, Jean, Archie’s daughter by his first wife arrives at their digs for a surprise visit. A school teacher in London, she had an argument with her fiancé over her going to the anti-Suez rally in Trafalgar Square, and she’s come home to think about her future. As the play goes on, they hear that Mick has been captured, then he’s due to be sent home – and then the worst happens. All this plays out against Archie’s seedy plans to raise some money for a new show, instead of realising Phoebe’s dream of moving to Canada to go into hotel management, (Archie’s brother Bill would stand their tickets).
The parallels between the end of the British Empire and the fading of the traditional music hall are explored throughout, as are the generational differences in the Rice family. Branagh had scheduled The Entertainer as the final play in his season ages ago, but now, in our post-Brexit vote world, it gives a new resonance to our current predicament!
The scenes alternate between the Rice’s home and Archie’s stage act. What is immediately clear is that Archie can’t turn it off – his life at home is another act. And finally, I can get to tell you about Branagh’s production…
Right from the start, Branagh made it obvious that he wasn’t in thrall to Olivier. He and his director Rob Ashford, wanted to show more of the hoofer side of Archie, the song and dance man comic. In a wordless intro, Branagh comes through the back door in his vest with a towel around his neck, practising his tap dancing. Nothing fancy, a few shuffles and kick ball turns sort of thing – a gentle warm-up but with a heaviness to it that warns of angst to come. Meanwhile his four chorus girls prance around him in their dressing gowns. Then Branagh disappears, the girls pull forward a few bits of furniture and we’re in the Rice residence where Billy is hoping for some peace and quiet to read his paper, when his grand-daughter Jean arrives.
John Hurt was originally going to play Billy Rice, but had to withdraw due to ill health. Gawn Grainger took on the role, and I have to say played it perfectly like Uncle Albert from Only Fools and Horses meets Alf Garnett from Til Death Us Do Part – indulgent grand-father, casual racist and tired old man. It took me a while to place where I’d seen Sophie McShera who played Jean – but then I realised she was Daisy from Downton; she seemed to have the perfect blend of questioning youth and budding feminist about her.
A quick pull back of the furniture and we see the first of Branagh’s turns. Very camp and full of innuendo, telling jokes about his wife and working the audience:
Archie: “You think I’m like that, don’t you? You think I am! Well, I’m not. But (pointing at the conductor) HE is.”
Branagh has reportedly been bending the ear of Rob Brydon (who had appeared in an earlier play in the season) and had also taken the veteran Ken Dodd as a comedy master to build his version of Archie. Branagh may not be a brilliant dancer, (or is that Branagh’s Archie? – bit meta that idea) but he does have superb comic timing, and was firing his awful jokes out at members of the audience as all comics do.
Sitting in the second row, I could see all the detail: his hoofer’s white socks, his imperfectly applied stage-make-up and five-o-clock shadow, and the strain of Archie going through the motions, each time getting more frustrated and erratic.
Back to the house, and we meet Phoebe, Greta Scacchi with 1950s shampoo and set, a blowsy middle-aged woman past her prime who veers from eternal optimism to tired drunk. The amount of gin put away by all of then during the performance was phenomenal – the Rices must have been almost permanently pissed (or ‘slewed’ as Osborne writes). The scene where Archie comes home and lays into a drunken Phoebe, then Billy eats the cake intended for Mick’s homecoming, and then Archie persuades Phoebe to sing (which she does like a little girl would) was simply awful in its patronising of her. (See a clip of this scene from the Olivier film here). She is more a mother to Archie than wife, and Scacchi was great.
It carries on getting worse and worse, building up Archie’s failures and the sturm and drang of the Rice’s family life. By the end, as in Look Back With Anger, you’re almost relieved when the curtain falls.
It’s not a perfect play – Osborne doesn’t bother telling us the familial relationships in the Rice family at the beginning – and it takes time to work them out – we’re put straight into the domestic drama (although that’s what Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge do in their novels, so I shouldn’t complain – it’s just harder to follow on stage). The gin situation gets a bit boring – Hemingwayesque, you could say! I was reminded of all the repetitious dialogue that punctuates the drinking in The Sun Also Rises. The penultimate scene, which is the first time we meet Jean’s fiancé Graham and Archie’s brother Billy seems rather odd, introducing new characters right at the end of the play, and that jarred for me.
This early in its run, the production is still finding its feet in places, but it’s always an absolute joy to see Branagh on stage, (my third time, the first being his amazing full-length Hamlet for the RSC at the Barbican in 1992).
The Entertainer is on at the Garrick until mid-November with a live broadcast to cinemas at the end of October – I definitely think I’ll see it again on the big screen.