John Osborne wrote The Entertainer in 1957 when Britain was a country in crisis and its people were embittered, disillusioned and tired. There can’t be a better time to stage a revival than right now.
Comic, actor and entertainer, Shane Richie, has bespoke shoes to fill in the role of washed-up vaudeville star, Archie Rice, following on from Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.
Richie stars in Leicester Curve’s new co-production which has just started an extensive UK tour.
It opened on Monday night at Milton Keynes Theatre and the irony of the show wasn’t lost on the audience.
Osborne, who depicted an angry young man in his debut play, Look Back In Anger, wrote The Entertainer at the behest of Olivier who wanted a vehicle for himself, portraying an angry middle-aged man.
What Shane Richie brings to the role is a life-time’s experience playing the pubs and clubs that the fictional Archie Rice would have visited.
The playwright wrote The Entertainer during a time when Britain was struggling to recover from war, was embroiled in The Suez Crisis and was facing massive political and cultural change.
And it was also a response to what he could see happening in theatres where audiences were turning their backs on vaudeville and music hall in favour of TV and cinema.
Director Sean O’Connor has moved this revival along to Thatcher, 1982, and the Falklands War, but he might as well pitch it in 2019 with Brexit, the government in turmoil and the country in revolt.
But what all the eras share is a rapidly changing social climate.
In the 1980s traditional comics faced extinction as a new generation of comedians turned the genre on its head with sharp, political, foul-mouthed, observational gags.
Today, we’ve come full circle, with theatres once again struggling to put bums on seats, particularly for plays, even with popular, big name stars, with the public preferring Netflix and TV box sets.
The Entertainer is relentlessly bleak, a blistering, dark, angry snapshot of failure, domestically, nationally and internationally.
It is still a vital and very relevant drama that has an awful lot to say about tradition, ambition, success and the family dynamic, but the wretchedness of the story leaves audiences wanting to head to the bar.
Archie Rice is one of the last music-hall entertainers, churning out terrible mother-in-law gags and sexual innuendo to ever dwindling audiences.
He’s wanted by the taxman – who he’s successfully dodged for 20 years – and, at home he has a bigoted father, a depressed lush for a wife and two grown up kids, while a third is away serving his country.
Archie, with his (now) unfashionable slicked back DA haircut (Shane Richie looking like Joe Pasquale), can’t stop acting.
Off-stage he’s tripping around a room, doing a quick one-two, cracking jokes and playing Jack-The-Lad.
But he’s feeling trapped. Life hasn’t worked out the way he hoped and his answer is to walk away into the arms of a busty 20-year-old barmaid.
There’s only one star of Archie’s show and it’s him. He can’t even sound concerned about the fate of his soldier-son, Mick, and feels no guilt about a lifetime of tawdry affairs and one-nighters.
Wife Phoebe, daughter Jean, Billy, the old man, and Archie spend the first act constantly sniping at each other over endless glasses of gin.
The story plunges into even deeper gloom with depressed, desperate Archie prepared to do anything to keep the stage act going. Offered a lifeline he can’t bear to take it – or can he?
O’Connor’s uneven production does have moments of real flair.
Using the red tops’ headlines, like The Sun’s ‘Gotcha’, in-between scenes reminds us of the on-going battle with Argentina over The Falklands.
Archie’s sudden appearances front of stage, breaking through the fourth wall, to deliver a profound line of dialogue, may seem clever on paper but the break in the narrative feels false and unconvincing.
Richie is, however, always The Entertainer. He is on fine form as Archie, standing centre stage and delivering the sort of nasty, misogynistic act that the late Bernard Manning would have been proud of.
But Osborne concentrated all his efforts on the obnoxious Archie and failed to flesh out the remaining characters.
Sara Crowe’s pathetic, down-trodden Phoebe, has little to do other than play hysterically drunk pretty much from beginning to end.
The always reliable Pip Donaghy, as Billy, has been burdened with giving an impression of Alf Garnett and making racist remarks about the neighbours
The repetitive, stagnant domestic scenes offer little dramatic movement other than watching the entire family working their way through a couple of bottles of Gordon’s, and squabble and shout at each other.
And it’s often difficult to understand what Richie and Diana Vickers, as Jean, are saying, their dialogue is delivered at speed and not entirely clearly.
Director, O’Connor, has buried the pathos and any sympathy we may have for Osborne’s anti-hero, and instead made Richie’s Archie nasty, mean-spirited and deeply unpleasant.
Osborne brought anger, power and passion to his work – and that hasn’t dimmed over the years – but, by god, this is a grim, gloomy production.
The Entertainer runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday.