No Man’s Land – Wyndhams Theatre

ian-mckellen-and-patrick-stewart-in-no-mans-land

Previously published by The Reviews Hub

‘I have never been loved, from this I draw my strength’; Pinter’s version of no man’s land exists in a strange purgatorial world, somewhere between love and complete solitude, between past and future, between reality and dreams. The four men, in what is probably his least straightforwardly comprehensible play, speak of the outside world, of experiences they’ve had or the life they currently live, but they are trapped in a room together which they will never escape, they are in a limbo state, they are in no man’s land.

Hirst, a man of letters, meets the chancer Spooner in a pub in north London and invites him back to his lonely home on Hampstead Heath to continue drinking where they are eventually joined by Hirst’s younger companions and employees. Over the course of that night and the following morning the men exchange numerous anecdotes in a cat-and-mouse game as memories and fiction blurs their conversation.

Pinter is not the easiest playwright to get to grips with and the absurdist nature of No Man’s Land is probably the least accessible. Yet, Sean Mathias’s production brings a deep understanding of Pinter’s rhythm, so while much of the dialogue is exchanges of nonsense, Pinter’s themes of varying sources of control, disconcerting connections to the past and the effect of an interloper on an established environment come across particularly strongly. Watching the power shift around the room as different groups of characters come together and are exposed is one of the high points of this interpretation.

It is a production that is never less than compelling which is entirely due to its four performers whose interaction gives flight to Pinter’s bizarre tale. It is demanding for an audience because the dialogue is deliberately unnatural with long unbroken monologues that demand an interruption from another character that never comes. These are not Shakespearean soliloquies that deliberately unburden the speaker’s emotions or troubles, but odd rambling stories that may not even be true, giving little insight or empathy. Yet the fascination lays in watching them unfold and the momentary belief that Spooner or Hirst invests in them before they flitter away as easily as memories. In the hands of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart they become a form of theatre gold.

McKellen, sartorially channelling David Tennant’s Dr Who in pinstriped suit and plimsolls, perfectly suits the verbosity and poetic tone of Spooner, a man who creeps gently around the room, refilling his glass and inveigling his way into the household. As you would expected, McKellen enjoys playing with the language and wringing every ounce of meaning from the lines, yet there is an obvious shrinking and wariness when confronted by the more masculine Foster and Briggs, as if afraid of being seen through or found out. In McKellen’s performance, Spooner’s version of no man’s land is being an outsider, never loved, wanted or welcomed, which leads him to a desperation that McKellen exploits well.

Patrick Stewart’s Hirst is the perfect contrast and for a long-time hardly speaks as his companion waffles on. This Hirst is initially more reserved and made morose by the copious amounts of drink, yet as the night wears on he slowly opens. For the audience, Stewart’s initial restraint is then rewarded with a couple of beautifully haunting scenes reflecting on the past and his obsession with the people in his album, saying “you find me in the last lap of a race I’ve forgotten to run”. Stewart’s Hirst is stuck in his own no man’s land, a past that will never return.

The leads receive very fine support from a whiskered Owen Teale as cook-cum-butler Briggs whose gravelly voice and hard-man image belie a genuinely caring and tender side. His first appearance in full 70s garb is deliberately gangster-like but he gets several of his own monologues in which Teale brilliantly reveals the affection for Foster while, despite his physical presence, easily accepting Stewart’s authority. Briggs’s ambiguously homoerotic relationship with Damian Molony’s younger Foster is nicely pitched, but Molony’s press night nerves meant the youthful freshness this character brings to the play was a little lost in rushed delivery. However, I did see a preview performance as well where Molony was considerably more relaxed and extremely good as the cocky young caretaker.

This production has thought carefully about its design, with Stephen Brimson Lewis’s semi-circular set creating a masculine panelled world that keeps the characters locked in, while the edges of exposed and broken beams reflect its essential rottenness. A large circular mat is slightly out of sync with the concentric circles of the floor which add to the disconcerting feel and reflect the circuity of the dialogue. And while the younger men sport obviously 70s outfits, the elder and the room itself have a timeless quality – itself a reflection of a no man’s land of sorts.

Arguably Mathias’ interpretation is perhaps a little too safe, opting for a very straight, traditional production that while extremely well executed, may not attract such a diverse audience. As someone who has always struggled with Pinter – and being unable to get to grips with a previous version of No Man’s Land with Michael Gambon and David Bradley – it wasn’t until Jamie Lloyd’s vibrant production of The Homecoming at Trafalgar Studios last January, that I really began to see why Pinter’s work has lasted so well. The sheer aggression of it and the bold design didn’t make me love Pinter but I did begin to understand his themes and style.

Now, No Man’s Land is a far more sedate and reflective play than The Homecoming, looking at a different part of life, but it could be a hard sell to a younger audience despite the brilliance of its leads. Ticket prices too may well be a problem and in the queue to collect a £10 preview ticket booked back in March on my first viewing of this, the box office only had premium day seats for £150, which as much as l love the theatre is an insane amount of money to spend, especially on what really is a very difficult work. Delfont Mackintosh do still have much cheaper tickets available, including some standing spaces for £10 but do book in advance rather than risk having to pay so much at the last minute.

So as a number of our leading men take to the stage, Branagh’s The Entertainer and now, Mckellen and Stewart’s No Man’s Land have proven to be unmissable. It may be one of Pinter’s hardest plays but for many it will be the performances they come for which are as fine as you will see this autumn season. And while the meaning of No Man’s Land may remain as obscure as ever, this production gives clarity to Pinter’s reflections on reality, fiction and the places in between.

No Man’s Land is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 17 December. Tickets start at £10 in the balcony or standing, and there will an NT Live cinema screening on 15 December.

trh


You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 – V&A

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For many the 1960s was the epitome of freedom, style and youth culture, an explosion of colour, music and fashion that inarguably shaped the subsequent decades, an influence that is still felt today. Or so goes the argument of the V&A’s latest major exhibition that looks at the ‘significance and impact’ of the late 60s. For those of us who weren’t there, the V&A makes a strong case and throws in a few surprises by considering not just the obvious pop culture aspects, but also the emergence of political protest in multiple countries, key technological innovations and a growing concern with an eco-friendly lifestyle.

But it all begins with the more obvious, but still highly entertaining, story of swinging London, political scandals and the integration of music and fashion. We may have heard it all before but the V&A takes a more academic approach to presentation with detailed descriptions of every object as well as an admirable collection of exhibits that add considerably to the argument the exhibition is making. It’s clear the museum has learnt so much in recent years from its blockbuster shows and the importance of visual design is now as valuable as the objects on display. Technology too is integrated into this show with video screens and presentations throughout, but most importantly a headset (for once included in the price) that wirelessly connects to films and recordings as you walk by allowing you to listen without having to control the audio guide yourself, and plays a variety of 60s tunes to you – from John Peel’s record collection – the rest of the time, immersing you entirely in the years under discussion.

Utilising the citrus colours of psychedelia, the first section looks at youth culture, art, fashion and music with examples from clothing store Biba, a video of stylist Vidal Sassoon cutting a V-shape into the back of a woman’s hair and posters referencing art nouveau from the First World War. Everything changed is the message here; from hemlines to morals, the late 1960s was a blast of fresh air on a fetid backward-looking society. A lot of that is debatable and arguably it is the older generation who did much to alter the laws that decriminalised homosexuality and abortion, but seeing this collection all at once certainly replicates the vibrant feel of the times.

From Twiggy’s clothing line on a mannequin that is frighteningly designed to look like her, to Mick Jagger’s all-in-one white stage outfit, Sandi Shore’s dresses designed by husband Jeff Banks (and let’s not forget he went on to design clothing for Sainsburys), the chair Christine Keeler provocatively posed on during the Profumo scandal to the newly launched magazines of the era, this section is all about fresh faces and creative endeavours. Interesting too is the focus on fame and how the perceived lifestyles of particular celebrities helped to shape the commercial and cultural effect of the era leading to clothing catalogues replicating celebrity outfits and the craze for shopping that resulted. The new photographers like David Bailey and Ronald Traeger took pictures of people like Michael Caine, Terence Stamp and even the Krays that are on display here which define this confluence of art and style.

Unsurprisingly, at many points this feels as much an exhibition of The Beatles as it does an examination of their era, with almost every section containing costumes, clothes or handwritten lyrics jotted down on scraps of paper. In section two on the effect of LSD, which was legal until 1966, their stage outfits from Sergeant Pepper and a sitar. There’s a lot of material in this section that looks at the growth of “counter-culture” clubs and their impact on design, which is interesting but a little too text heavy, and you’ll find as with the rest of the exhibition, it is The Beatles sections everyone is crowded around.

Most unexpectedly the V&A has included a large section on the political disputes, activism and riots of this period, many in response to the Vietnam War, and developing attitudes to race, sexuality and gender politics. After the brash whirl of the early sections this is a tonic, clearly showing that beneath the façade of cool celebrities and consumption, dark and complex changes were occurring in societies across the world that laid the foundation for many of the freedoms we take for granted today. There was a shift to using posters for political purposes and many are on display, along with protective clothing worn by The Black Panthers and French Police, as well as brutal photojournalism showing dead students in America as a result of an out of control protest – a stark and fascinating contrast with the slick image of celebrities in the previous room. Clearly, the late 60s saw a flowering of popular culture but also of youth engagement with pertinent political and social injustices.

Being the V&A a section on design is almost mandatory and while this section on consumerism and technological development has some interesting objects, it almost warrants a whole exhibition on its own. It’s a very broad ranging room, taking in developments in advertising, paper dresses printed with a Warhol-influenced soup poster print, space suits from the moon-landing, Expos and a Kodak Carousel anachronistically accompanied by a relevant scene from Mad Men. It feels a bit too lightweight on its own and could have made more sense if tied into the later room on the growth of communication technologies and personal computing. It’s nice to include but is a little flimsy in linking such innovations to its overall argument about the ongoing influence of the 60s.

One of the showcase sections is the semi-recreation of Woodstock, shown on enormous surrounding screens including performances from Hendrix and The Who while the floor is covered in fake grass strewn with beanbags for visitors to lie-back and enjoy. Around the room are several of the costumes worn by musicians as well as Keith Moon’s drum kit and Jimi Hendrix’s guitars in various states of destruction. For music fans this exhibition is a must and the amount of original material the V&A has gathered is incredible, and if you can fight the reminiscing baby boomers for a beanbag this room is well worth a longer stay. But it links neatly into the section on the creation of ecological communities, who rejected technology and traditional city life for country communes. It’s certainly clear that festival-going has moved from its alternative roots into a mainstream preoccupation for many in the summer, with environmental concerns are hotly debated, while our modern preoccupation with being permanently “online” is developing its own backlash – a return to counterculture modes perhaps?

The exhibition ends with 1970 and the ushering in of a slightly different era typified by calls for peace, love and social cohesion. It ends with Lennon’s Imagine – a song many will have an ambiguous relationship with now – as well as a jacket he wore at the time. Its tone is a bit of a whimper after such a furious beginning and high-stakes political discussion, but perhaps that’s how all decades end, a quiet slide into the next one taking only some of their style and substance with them. Yet the V&A makes a compelling case for the influence of the period 1966-70 on the modern world, and while a lot of the changes it trumpets were grounded in the post-war upheavals of the 1920s-1950s, the 60s has a hold on our imagination that is hard to shake. This is a full-on and at times overwhelming show, full to the brim with interesting exhibits – to wallow in it, head to the V&A and enjoy this anthem to the decade of style.

You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is at the V&A until 26 February 2017. Tickets are £16 and several concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Shakespeare reFASHIONed: Much Ado About Nothing – Selfridges

shakespeare-refashioned

Much Ado About Nothing is such a summer favourite and so frequently performed that you might feel you’ve seen it all too many times before. You know the plot so well that you anticipate every twist and turn before they happen, look out for the milestone moments and find yourself zoning out during the no longer quite so hilarious distractions and diversions of the Watch which just prolongs the resolution of the central love stories and evil machinations of Don John. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream it’s too frequent repetition by multiple companies in mainstream theatre and the fringe has become a burden, dulling the edges of one of Shakespeare’s finest comedies.

Yet the announcement that innovative theatre company The Faction was about to put on a slick 90 minute performance in a pop-up theatre in Selfridges had me instantly looking for tickets.  This youthful troupe has quite an impressive reputation and I’ve professionally reviewed their work at the New Diorama several times, enjoying their novel approach and application of wide-ranging technique to add insight to established classics. At the start of this year their Richard III was so impressive it was clear they were had solidified their place as the best performers of Shakespeare on the fringe, with a show that allowed its leading character to only show his physical deformity when his self-belief was challenged and at all other times the audience saw Richard as he saw himself – a super-human. It showed an understanding of the text and its central character that was both inventive and yet perfectly in tune with the tone of the original work, and it meant that any production by The Faction  is well worth a look.

On Selfridges Lower Ground Floor is the reFASHIONed theatre, which uses a catwalk-style traverse stage through the centre of the small room with the audience facing each other, as the actors appear from around the auditorium. As with most Faction productions, this version of Much Ado is simply staged with minimal set and props but a touch of modern glamour is added with coloured light panels along the stage and its pillars, as well as the integration of video screens that give this fresh adaptation a claustrophobic feel that emphasises the several instance of spying and deception in the text.

Typically for this company, the interpretation has a very young and vibrant feel to it, not just in the drastically reduced run time but also in the very nice staging of the early masked ball, which here becomes a frenzy of lights and bodies to a thumping sound track. With many of the older characters hoofed-out of this production or reduced to sparse video messages, we’re left largely with a group of youngsters desperate to party – the men because they’ve returned from war craving female company and escape; the women because they’ve been trapped in the villa for months without any potential husbands to flirt with. Much hilarity is drawn from the vibrant drunken revelry that ensues as romantic marriage deals are secured as easily as seedy bunk-ups.

And this slick enthusiasm is a constant feature of the show which keeps the action moving at an impressive pace without the distraction of the subplots and characters. But, having seen several Faction productions there was an edge missing from this one. One of the features of this company is their inventive application of physical theatre to reinforce a fresh interpretation of classic texts, which works to such impressive effect in the bare black box of the New Diorama. In their Richard III earlier this year, they created two thrones from the bodies of eight cast members, or in their Joan-of Arc last year choreographed some brutal fight scenes in slow motion that added considerably to the drama. Here in what seems a bigger budget approach to Much Ado, it has lost some of that Faction physical flair which if you’ve never seen them before you won’t notice but for regulars is a sadly absent hallmarks.

The performances are impressive and convincing, though, and the success of any version of this play hinges on the central pairing of Beatrice and Benedick, here played with verve by Alison O’Donnell and Daniel Boyd. Benedick in particular is too often portrayed as a swaggering hero, but Boyd nicely subverts our expectation by making him a slightly unsure of himself hipster in a patterned shirt and too short trousers. Boyd’s funniest moments reveal his dithering heart, implying his failure to pursue Beatrice has more to do with his lack of self-confidence and fear than lack of interest in her.

Brimming with self-confidence is O’Donnell’s contrasting Beatrice, constantly bursting with witty put-downs and slights against her sparring partner. She’s full of energy and certainty, that occasionally borders on fishwifey, but there’s a nice brittleness to her that melds well with Boyd’s quieter Benedick, and gives the pairing fresh appeal. The comparative lovers Hero and Claudio are somewhat thankless parts, they provide the backbone of the story but both are rather insipid which makes it difficult for the actors to inject much animation into that relationship. While they may command less attention than the leads, you don’t hate them for their blandness and Lowri Izzard and Harry Lister Smith make a sweet pairing.

In an interesting take the role of Leonato is perfectly transposed into Leonata and played brilliantly by Caroline Langrishe, which adds a second gender dimension to the play, as a house entirely composed of women is ‘invaded’ by an army of men. Langrishe absolutely anchors the production as the dignified host, adding considerable gravitas to the otherwise fledgling cast. Equally interesting is Faction veteran Christopher Hughes as Don John a nicely malevolent presence casting a shadow over the otherwise sunny proceedings, but adding greater depth to this role of jealous brother than often seen, and with Jude Owusu’s engaging Don Pedro, you want these fractious siblings to be given more stage time.

There’s much to admire in this pared-down version of Much Ado About Nothing and its modern twist combined with an unusual setting should certainly attract new audiences in this Shakespeare anniversary year. The Faction has taken a fresh approach to a much worn classic and while many critics were unimpressed with some of the innovations on offer, this company’s lateral-thinking approach always makes their work an interesting experience. The use of video isn’t to all tastes and it may not work well but I can see why they chose it – it obviates the need for Simon Callow et al to turn up every night, slims down the subplots and implies a wider comment on the surveillance element of the plot.

Shakespeare in a shop is quite a strange idea, and while the avowed purpose of this short season is to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a number of events and displays across the department store, including quotes and merchandise in the famous windows, at heart of course, this is a cunning way to sell things and Selfridges has a themed clothing line as well as copious amounts of accessories, books and general gifts which it hopes to flog to you, while showcasing its stylish fashion credentials with the cast costumes. Yet in return, with several empty seats, the theatre could do more to drum up on-the-spot business from people browsing the cook-wear, because despite its all too frequent summer airing, The Faction is one of London’s leading young companies and their  take on Much Ado About Nothing is fresh and fun.

Shakespeare reFASHIONEDed: Much Ado About Nothing is at Selfridges until 24 September, with performances running Tuesday-Saturday. Tickets cost £20


Film Review: Anthropoid – BFI Southbank

Jamie Dornan & Cillian Murphy in Anthropoid

History is still too often the story of “great men” and Sean Ellis’s new film Anthropoid, which had its UK premier at BFI Southbank last week, considers whether the removal of a key individual can really change the course of events. It’s an idea we tend to take for granted, certainly in public history, and it’s one that’s used to propel any kind of historical fiction, asking us where we would have been without the Winston Churchills, Henry VIIIs and Nelsons of the world. And of course, as Anthropoid demonstrates, the inverse is true, there are also a series of “bad men” of history whose removal it is supposed would prevent all kinds of disasters, wars and genocides.

As a society, we like to tell stories that suggest progress and these are often driven by quite black and white versions of who the heroes and villains are. But real life is far more complicated than that, and key individuals, whether good or bad, are often at the heart of a large network of activities which will continue to exist without them. At the crux of Anthropoid is a debate about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Nazi final solution, with a reputation so fearsome he earned the soubriquet ‘the butcher of Prague’ and whether removing him would release or further enslave the citizens of Czechoslovakia.

Two soldiers, played by Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, are parachuted into a forest on the outskirts of Prague at the start of the film with orders from the exiled Czech government in London to kill Heydrich. They are met and welcomed into the local underground resistance led by the wonderful Toby Jones, who are initially unaware of their secret mission, but help the men to integrate into Czech society, giving them a family to lodge with, jobs and even fake girlfriends as part of their cover.

There have been a number of poor reviews which largely hinge on the slightly misconceived notion that this a straightforward thriller in the style of Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie, which took a more ‘Mission Impossible’ approach to a botched assassination attempt of Hitler. But while the content and setting of Anthropoid draws obvious comparisons, Sean Ellis – who wrote, directed and acted as cinematographer – is aiming at something slightly different, with the big action scenes serving only to punctuate a taut exploration of a much wider organisation. While the assassination attempt is the film’s core driver, its purpose is to understand the context in which such a plan came about and the emotional and physical costs to the extended network of men and women it affected.

The first hour is entirely concerned with these preparations as Jan (Dornan) and Josef (Murphy) scout locations, secretly photograph Heydrich’s route to work and spy on his daily routine. It is pure character study as the two men begin to come to terms with the task they have to perform. For interest, Ellis has given them contrasting personalities, and during the Q&A that followed last week’s showing, explained that while his background research was extensive, such aspects of character are hard to know which gives the actors plenty of artistic licence.

Murphy’s Josef is the more serious and soldierly of the two, given a direct order that he doesn’t question and leads the scientific process of deciding how and when to strike. He is acutely aware at all times of the dangerous position they’re in, trying to blend into a tightly-wound society while keeping his emotions in check. But there’s also a paternal element to his character which Murphy brings out quite subtly in the protection of the weaker Jan from the full horror of their exposed position and maintain motivation despite objections from other resistance fighters. One point of ambiguity however is the relationship he forms with Lenka (Anna Geislerová) which he initially resists and sees only in terms of fulfilling his cover story. You’re supposed to believe he then falls for her, so as Ellis explained as the film plays out the two leads almost swap character traits, with Josef becoming softer. Some ambiguity is fine, but the idea that he suddenly melts was not entirely convincing, as Murphy’s performance is so restrained it seemed more likely that he respects Lenka for the danger she puts herself in for his sake and sees someone matching his level of sacrifice, but doesn’t actually fall in love with her.

Dornan on the other hand plays a character whose emotions are much closer to the surface and falls quickly in love with Marie (Charlotte Le Bon). Without any back-story, it’s hard to know what previous role Jan had that got him selected for this mission because he responds quite badly to combat pressure, certainly in the first half of the film as his hands shake when he tries to fire, and Josef has to calm him during panic attacks. Dornan does all of this pretty well and audiences will find his warmer character engaging, but it’s a bit hard to believe he would have been chosen for such a specialist and highly significant mission. What is interesting, however, is seeing his confidence grow in the second half of the film as the fall-out from the assassination leads to a siege that separates the two leads, and here Jan demonstrates more considerable military poise, strategy and bravery under pressure than expected.

Ellis is wearing a lot of hats in this production and some fit a little better than others. Given his photography background understandably the cinematography is very striking. Using Super 16mm film it has both a period and punchy feel which adds to the drama of the action scenes while underscoring the more introspective moments. At the Q&A, Ellis talked about recreating shots of Prague from wartime photographs and, because the city has changed, using digital effects to subsequently recreate some of their atmosphere. The linking shots are some of the best seen in a war film with noticeably beautiful images of Prague enveloped in haze and cloud standing out.

It’s clear how much research Ellis has done and this project has taken several years to come to fruition, so the balance of introspective and high action moments actually work quite well. If you don’t go to this expecting a thriller as several critics appear to have, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the intricacies of the wider story. However, while the writing is largely pretty good, it feels overlong because the central assassination takes a while to occur and although the groundwork for that is interesting, it’s in the audiences mind as the main event, so some of the subsidiary stories around the romance and resistance in-fighting feel like distractions.

Most of the other characters are also too thinly drawn to add much to the plot or to create much investment in their cause, with the excellent Toby Jones essentially wasted in a small role as the group leader. There is clearly a huge amount of politics between the on-the-ground resistance and that directed from the relative safety of London, so more suspicion of the two parachutists and their motives for doing this would have added texture, particularly in the first hour rather than focusing on the somewhat dreary love interests.

One of the most interesting aspects of this film is actually seeing the consequences of their actions play out, which links back to this crucial underlying question of whether removing one key person from history really changes anything. The rapid escalation of violence after the assassination, the brutal torture and efficient round-up of the extended network and how this act was utilised to justify further bloody incursions into Czechoslovakia implies that the costs and consequences were far higher than the resistance had prepared for. Try watching this in a double bill with the excellent Conspiracy a BBC film from 2001 with Kenneth Branagh as a chilling Heydrich at the Wannsee Conference and this may alter your perspective. Anthropoid leaves you to decide whether the removal of “bad men” would significantly change the course of history, but it undoubtedly highlights the real bravery and heroism of the small group of people who tried.

Anthropoid was premiered at the BFI Southbank with Q&A. It opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday 9 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Entertainer – Garrick Theatre

The Entertainer - Kenneth Branagh

2016’s spring and summer theatre seasons have been dominated by some outstanding leading female performances; from Sheridan Smith’s Funny Girl to Billy Piper’s Yerma and Helen McCrory’s Hester in The Deep Blue Sea (which gets an NT Live cinema showing this week) this is some of the best work we’ve seen in London for some time. But autumn is almost here and it’s time for our leading men to step into the spotlight. Over the next few weeks a number of highly anticipated shows will open – Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart bring their No Man’s Land tour to the Wyndhams, while Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith take on The Dresser at the Duke of York’s.

But before any of them Kenneth Branagh gives his take on John Osborne’s The Entertainer, the final play in his year-long Garrick season, which has its press night tomorrow. Set in 1956, it’s the tale of middle-aged Music Hall entertainer Archie Rice, who continues to tread the boards in a comedy end-of-the-pier show in a northern seaside town. He lives with his second wife Phoebe, their two sons and his father the renowned, and now retired, Music Hall star Billy Rice. One weekend Archie’s daughter Jean, from his first marriage, comes to visit from London and the precarious balance of illusion and deliberate ignorance that has sustained the family is shattered.

Osborne’s plays are often hard to really love and even 60 years on the brutal nature of his characters can be uncomfortable to watch. But while there’s plenty of West End theatre that will harmlessly entertain you, very little sends you out into the night troubled by what you have seen, this production of The Entertainer does just that and it’s a very good thing.

At the time Osborne wrote this play Britain was undergoing a period of considerable change as old and new values began to clash across the political and social spectrum. Rationing had only recently ended and the old Britain of Empire and showmen like Archie was essentially bankrupt. Much has been made in the pre-press about its echoes in current issues, and watching the show now its relevance to our own times, with Brexit and Scottish independence once again pitting old against new, is stark. The Union flag is a frequent motif as it was in the Music Hall, either waved in Archie’s act, representing the armed forces or projected across the back of the stage… and how complicated our own relationship with that symbol of Britain now is – it doesn’t mean quite the same thing it did two months ago. Who we are as a nation and how much we value tradition over progress are questions as important to us now as they were to Osborne in the 1950s. And what this version of The Entertainer is doing is seeing that play-out in microcosm in one family deeply affected by a future they can’t control – seem familiar?

Once again I heard another audience member call this ‘obviously dated’ which, as with the recent discussion about Present Laughter, is a misunderstanding. The Entertainer is set in the time it was written and where it feels stale is a deliberate move by Branagh and director Rob Ashford to show that Archie is a man out of his time. In fact his refined working class family worry about the future but live almost entirely in the past, recounting old stories and existing within the confines of Archie’s long out-of-date act. And, alongside the political references, like Present Laughter, it has much to say about the expiration of celebrity, how quickly it disappears and, for those like Archie, even now, clinging to a desperate C-List status is better than none at all.

Christopher Oram’s has done some excellent design work during this season but The Entertainer is one of his best, setting it in a shabby and faded Music Hall with a giant curtain dominating the back of the stage where Archie often appears with dancers to perform his routine. Brilliantly, the Rice household exists in a combined ‘backstage’ and ‘onstage’ set-up which allows Ashford to fluidly move between the home and stage scenes, with dancers neatly moving furniture into place. It makes perfect sense for them to ‘live’ in the Music Hall which has economically sustained them and shaped their lives, nicely exploited with occasional freeze-frame moments as Archie delivers his gags around them, tying the two sides of his life together.

You’ll undoubtedly hear a lot in the coming days about Olivier’s take on the central role and how Branagh compares, but undoubtedly he has made this part his own, incorporating everything he’s learned from his roles during the season to create a sad wreck of a man. His Archie is someone able to fool himself he once had everything and finding it increasingly difficult to hide the truth, an element of his Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. In many ways Archie is a version of Arthur Gosport in Harlequinade, a second-rate actor committed to the theatre, but Branagh’s Archie is only too aware of his failings, while the wonderful comic timing and joy he used to great effect in The Painkiller he warps slightly here as Archie’s show-time pieces are deliberately just out of sync or mistimed by a second to expose him.

Archie is performing almost always, especially in front of his father where jokes and stories are relayed in the same patter he uses on stage but there are wonderful moments when Branagh subtly allows something to catch in his throat, to suppress an emotion he refuses to feel, and in Act Two when Archie unleashed a tirade about being ‘dead behind the eyes’ and talks of not feeling anything, knowing the people watching him don’t feel anything either, it’s an incredibly exposing and affecting moment which certainly makes this audience feel for him. While Branagh has hinted at this before, from that point you see Archie’s struggle, how the affairs, drinking and dodgy deals are all part of the way he fools himself rather than admit he’s never been the man he wants to be and indicate the extent of his self-loathing. It’s an aching and profoundly moving performance.

Gawn Grainger replaced John Hurt at fairly short notice in the role of Bill Rice and its one that grows on him as the play progresses. He is a key force in the play and while a lot of time is spent waiting for and relying on Archie, it is Billy that the household actually moves around. He represents a very old guard – racist, faded and accepting his time is done but still an aspiration for his son. Grainger has the cantankerous side of Billy but needs to draw out the pathos as the run progresses.

Greta Scacchi has that balance just right as Archie’s feeble and highly-strung wife. She’s a permanently anxious presence, well aware that her dallying husband no longer really loves her but like him chooses to hide from the truth, but in gin – and if you attempt a dangerous drink along with the characters then you could be in a pretty sorry state. Always on the verge of tears and regretting a wasted life, Scacchi is a perfect piece of casting. Less so is Sophie McShera who brings very little to the crucial role of Jean. Her initial scenes are quite flat and then everything else becomes a little shrill and surprisingly lifeless.  She lacks the youthful fire that this character heralds and the important contrast of big city life, change and the future that she represents. Again she’s meant to be a character out of time, but looking forward unlike her family and there has to be real angst as Jean debates a life of old or new.

So, ‘our revels now are ended’ and Branagh’s fascinating theatre season draws to a close with this bittersweet and thoughtful version of The Entertainer. It’s hard to know what effect this play will have, Osborne is still divisive, but this season has championed lesser-known and more troubling works, so to end with this elegiac comment on the nature of celebrity seems fitting, and it’s clear how much love has gone into it. In an autumn packed with big male performances, Branagh’s take on Archie Rice cuts deep and as a man who shies away from his own inadequacy it is acutely sad. It’s not for everyone and may be a challenge to attract younger viewers, but the disquieting effect this play has, long after the curtain call, is a rare and valuable thing

The Entertainer is at The Garrick Theatre until 12 November, and there will be a live cinema broadcast on 27 October. Tickets start at £17. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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