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The Entertainer

by on 26 November 2019

Culture Shock

The Entertainer

by John Osborne, adapted by Sean O’Connor

Anthology Theatre, Simon Friend and Curve co-production at Richmond Theatre until 30th November

Review by Mark Aspen

What do you do when the world is changing so fast that your world cannot catch up … when the world you know, and love, is becoming irrelevant?

This is the predicament that Archie Rice, our anti-hero in John Osborne’s comic tragedy The Entertainer finds himself. One response could be anger, and Rice has more than a fair sprinkling of that. Osborne was in his mid-twenties when he wrote his best known play, Look Back in Anger in 1956 one of the earliest “kitchen-sink” drama. (It was reported that audiences “gasped at the sight of an ironing board on stage”.) The producers described Osborne as an “angry young man”. The phrase soon became inseparable from the genre itself. However, when The Entertainer premiered a year later and Osborne was asked if it was an “angry” play, he answered awkwardly, “I suppose it might make some people angry”.

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Osborne set The Entertainer in 1956 against the background of the Suez Invasion, but director Sean O’Connor has moved this production forward in time by about a quarter of a century to  the Falklands War … but one has the uncomfortable feeling that it could be speaking about today. The question is begged, whom might it make angry today?

You see the play is an allegory on the state of Britain, a metaphor for social unease, and underlines the increasing political divergence in the country. The play is also about failure. Here maybe O’Connor’s adaptation is out of kilter, for Suez was perceived as a failure, where the Falkland’s was perceived as a success: today … who yet knows!

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If the twentieth century’s humour of the variety stage is not your cuppa, then you may have to cover your ears for most of the show. For Archie Rice is a variety entertainer playing a summer season somewhere up-North. The jokes come thick and fast, they are a less-than-subtle repartee with the audience, crude and sleazy, they hit on the mother-in-law, on racial differences and on foreigners. PC they definitely are not; today’s moralists would label them “inappropriate” at the mildest and more likely have them reaching for the “hate crimes” law book. Interestingly, the press night audience at Richmond Theatre had a mixed reaction, some uneasy, some laughing broadly.

Nevertheless, by the early 1980s Archie Rice’s humour had passed its sell-by date. Biting satire had replaced the saucy postcard humour, and comedians’ jibes now targeted politicians and the establishment instead of the foreigner or the poor old ma-in-law. Archie’s dancing, singing and wisecracking is now outmoded, and tragically, although Archie knows this, he cannot let go of the life he knows. He can see he is going under and is even indifferent to pulling his own family down the plughole with him, as he tries to convince himself that his next new act will revive his fortunes. Although tired and punch-drunk with his own efforts, he can’t quite bring himself to give it all up.

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The set itself takes a wry look at the declining world Archie and the Rice family are in. It is all muddily mismatched wallpaper and curtains, cheap 1960s furniture clashes with the Victorian upright ol’ johanna now relegated to the corner as the telly takes the centre stage of their seedy digs, where the Poles upstairs and the black ballet dancer downstairs knocking on the partitions curtail their sing-song. The family seems alienated from the world, as their own fading world is parenthesised between these neighbours.

This alienation is most acutely felt by the granddad, Billy Rice, an old trooper of the remnants of the music hall tradition, a staunch royalist true to his country. A cross between Alf Garnett and Albert Steptoe, his nostalgia for the standards of the past, “when everybody wore a hat, and doffed it when they passed the cenotaph, even on a bus” slips easily into xenophobia, boldly and volubly expressed. Today’s thought police would have given up on him, but the elderly can away with all sorts of things. Pip Donaghy etches a portrait of Billy Rice and his character with studied precision, from his shuffling gait to his shrugs of feigned indifference, to his explosions of rancour. Here is a man marooned in a receding past, conflicted between mildly accepting things and railing against the injustice of a system that robs him of his own culture and forces him to accept one he sees as alien and cannot understand. “Bloody foreigners, I ‘ate ‘em all” he fulminates in his opening speech. Easy to decry, but Billy has lost most of what he holds dear in his own way of life.

Archie has been following in his father’s footsteps treading the boards as the singing, dancing, comic and variety front-man. The problem with Archie though is that his stage persona follows him home. His coarseness, his misogyny and his insensitively are his off-stage self. His long-suffering wife, Phoebe is the butt for his barbs, as are the rest of his contrarily loyal family. Shane Richie, well-known for cornering the market in lovable (and not so lovable) rogues in TV and stage roles, is outstanding as Archie Rice, where his is earlier careers in stand-up and in musicals stand him in good stead. In fact he is so good that one wonders whether, like Archie himself, he is cast to type. But not so, in interviews he comes over as mild mannered and thoughtful (and has an elegant London accent). As Archie, the Double-Diamond loving geezer is all there, as is the showman, glitzy jackets, constantly dancing feet, thrusting shoulders. Richie also has a great singing voice.

Entertain20Beneath the uncaring Archie, though, there is a certain sadness, and Richie creates a three-dimensional character. His misogyny is a reaction to loss. His mother died when he was a young boy and his first wife died a short while after his daughter Jean was born. Ironically, Archie craves a woman’s love, but can’t see he could have happiness with Phoebe, if he allowed himself. All Archie’s energy goes into trying to revive his failing stage career. Archie is driving the car of his ambition with his foot to the floor, even though he has run out of road, while his travel-weary family hold on tight, wishing they could get off. Eventually he runs out of fuel.

Archie steps thorough the fourth wall (an odd conceit in a realistic play) and tells the audience, “Look, see behind these eyes, I’m dead”. Richie’s exhausted sighs speak volumes; Archie had nothing left to give … and he knows it.

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Sarah Crowe, as the frazzled and hollowed-out Phoebe, says all about her state of mind, even in her body language. It is the drained, etiolated look of one who has tried hard for too long, but without success. Crowe puts across the nervy edge of a woman on the verge of imploding, as she tries to keep the lid on the bickering cauldron that is her family.

Things come to a head when news comes from the Falkland Islands that their son Mick has been taken prisoner by the Argentinians. Their younger son Frankie is rattled by news as he feels guilty that he has not “done his bit” … quite the contrary. These tensions are exacerbated by the later news that, in spite of his release having been brokered, Mick has been killed. Christopher Bonwell, as Mick, shows the uneasy awkwardness of an unwilling piggy-in-the-middle, a discomfiture later assuaged in drink.

Indeed alcohol does nothing to mollify the sniping and bickering in the Rice household, Double Diamond for the men and gin for the women, or even gin and Dubonnet (The Queen Mother’s tipple) for special occasions.

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The special occasion for most of the play is a rare visit from Jean, Archie’s daughter. She is on a surprise weekend visit, but really wants to break the news that her engagement to a successful lawyer is finished, news that seems to wash over most of the family when she tells them early in the play. Jean has been leading a middle-class life away in London and her left-wing pacifist and anti-establishment views run quite contrary to Archie’s and Billy’s, but by-and-large they just ignore her views.

Billy ignores Jean’s views because she is his only granddaughter, and his love for her is clear. One the play’s most touching moments is a brief fond embrace between grandfather and granddaughter: beautifully acted, their mutual love shines out. Diana Vickers bring a feeling of fresh hope as Jean, in a balanced and well-nuanced performance, which rides the roller coaster of the emotions that Jean expresses or supresses. Within her stay with her family, she has to come to terms with her broken engagement, the death of her half-brother and the increasing disintegration of her father.

In spite of the acerbic in-yer-face dialogue and the rawness of the Rice family’s situation, there is a subtly in the acting by the whole cast, from which one has the feeling that from time to time it is possible to see through the cracks in each character’s hardened façade, to catch a fleeting glimpse of warmth.

Billy dies, and in a moving episode we see his culture metaphorically passing with him, in a stylised scene with his coffin draped in a Union Jack whilst the same flag forms the stage jacket of Billy, who stands outside, performing his last turn. Jean is with him.

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Perhaps this is where the feeling of hope is seen in Jean, for no matter how reprehensible her socio-political views are to the rest of the family, she is still one of them and still all want to make the family thrive.

The Entertainer is a powerful metaphor for a culture under siege. It may have been so in the Suez Crisis, or during the Falklands’ War; it certainly is the state of the nation at the close of 2019. Are you keeping up with your world, or is becoming irrelevant? Are you angry?

Mark Aspen
November 2019

Photography by Helen Murray

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