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