Friday, September 06, 2019

'The Entertainer' by John Osborne

6 September 2019

On Thursday we were at Milton Keynes Theatre to see ‘The Entertainer’ by John Osborne. ‘The Entertainer’ is such an iconic play, famous for Laurence Olivier’s self-deprecating performance and his endorsement of the angry young playwright. It’s one of those plays you feel you know, without having seen it. So it was fascinating to sit through a performance of ‘The Entertainer’ for the first time and to find that much of the play wasn’t what I had expected. The front-of-curtain routines in which the fading music-hall star Archie Rice is objectionable, embarrassing and sad yet, still manages occasionally to be genuinely funny, were wonderfully performed by Shane Richie. But the scenes in his family home surprised me, with Sara Crowe’s Phoebe an apparent prototype for Beverley in Abigail’s Party (reviewed here in March 2018) and the Rice family dynamic an uncanny predecessor of the Trotters in ‘Only Fools and Horses’. I also saw an unexpected parallel with 'The Remains of the Day' by Kazuo Ishiguro – both stories reflecting on the end of empire and a shift in Britain’s place in the world. Bizarrely, I spotted this similarity because Pip Donaghy, who played Archie’s father Billy Rice – a retired performer coaxed back onto the stage by his son, with disastrous consequences – also played Stevens Senior – a retired butler coaxed back into service by his son, with disastrous consequences – in the stage adaptation of ‘The Remains of the Day’ that we saw at the Royal Theatre, Northampton earlier this year (reviewed here in March 2019). Sean O’Connor’s production of ‘The Entertainer’ shifts the setting from 1957, with its backdrop of the Suez crisis, to 1982 and the Falklands War. This works well, without requiring much adjustment to the text. The action is interspersed with recordings of news broadcasts, giant projections of tabloid newspaper headlines and plenty of 80s pop music. This setting also now has the effect of making Archie Rice – as an ageing old-fashioned comedian in the early 1980s – seem even more seedy. ‘The Entertainer’ is an uncomfortable watch – a sad  commentary on Britain’s global role that feels very timely.

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