John Osborne wrote The Entertainer in 1957 after Laurence Olivier asked him to write a play about an angry, middle-aged man and the fading (and failing) music hall artist Archie Rice was born. It became one of the defining roles of Olivier’s illustrious career – he also starred in the 1960 film of the play and was nominated for an Oscar. Since then the part has been played by the likes of Max Wall, Robert Lindsay, Kenneth Branagh and even Jack Lemmon in a version made for American TV. Now it’s the turn of Shane Ritchie (of Eastenders fame) to take up the role in a production that has been touring the country and this week came to The Churchill in leafy Bromley.
The play was originally set around the time of the Suez Crisis when Britain and France invaded Egypt to wrest back control of the Suez Canal which ended with division in the country and the resignation of Prime Minister Anthony Eden. However, in this production, director Sean O’Connor has brought the action forward to 1982 and the Falklands War, another conflict that divided the country.
Back in 1957, Osborne was part of a group of playwrights known as “the angry young men” who were writing gritty, realistic plays set in the homes of normal, working class people rather than the drawing-room dramas their predecessors had written. The settings were mostly in seedy council flats or houses in the north of England and often the action didn’t move out of the kitchen hence the phrase “kitchen sink dramas”. The Entertainer is no different with most of the action taking place in the living room of Archie’s shabby rented home somewhere in in provincial England. Rice’s best (if he ever had such a thing) is behind him and he knows it which makes him bitter and twisted and a nightmare to live with especially for his long suffering, downtrodden second wife Phoebe. Also living with them is Archie’s aging father Billy who was also a music hall performer but has now retired.
What makes The Entertainer different to other kitchen sink dramas is that the play starts with Archie in front of the curtain performing his terrible, sexist non-PC stage act. He addresses the Bromley audience as if they’re the audience at a second-rate pier show, and his jokes and insults go down like a lead balloon. He sings and does a soft-shoe shuffle but there’s nothing behind the eyes – he’s been doing this far too long. The stage act is interspersed with scenes in the front room as Archie’s daughter from his first marriage, Jean (Diana Vickers) comes to visit and is met there by Billy who rants and raves about immigrants), manners and modern society in general – he’s the precursor of Alf Garnett in the TV series ‘Til Death Us Do Part – a bitter, twisted man.
Shane Ritchie is superb as Archie and we feel his pain as the funny man who’s no longer funny and who foresees a bleak future. He portrays the pathos of the character superbly and the audience starts to empathise, especially in the second act. However, in act one, the dialogue rattles along at such a pace that at times it felt as if the actors wanted to get finished as quickly as possible after a long tour that started back in August. The biggest culprit was Pip Donaghy as Billy and at times it was really hard to hear what he was ranting and raving about. Alice Osmanski as Phoebe was also guilty of the same thing which was a shame as Osborne’s dialogue deserves to be heard properly and a breath or two here and there would have helped.
Whilst Osborne was writing about a performer whose best days were behind him, the underlying theme was the state of a once proud nation as it went through a crisis that divided the country – Rice was struggling and so was Britain. The same could be said about the Falklands War which caused people to take to the streets in protest against an unnecessary war taking place thousands of miles away. Today once again, we are a country divided and I presume director O’Connor thought there would be more resonance with today’s audience if the conflict portrayed was within their memories. I’m not sure if that’s the case and personally I would have preferred it to have stayed where it was in the time when Osborne wrote it.
The highlight of the production is Shane Ritchie who is excellent in the part and has done justice to a role that in the past has attracted some of the finest actors of their generation to put their own stamp on the icon that is Archie Rice – Richie is not out of place in that stellar company.
Review by Alan Fitter
1982: Archie Rice is a washed-up entertainer playing a summer season. As his soldier son sails with the Task Force to liberate the Falklands, his daughter Jean returns from campaigning against the war, and Archie’s professional and personal lives collide with devastating consequences.
Shane Richie takes on the role memorably created on stage and screen by Laurence Olivier alongside Diana Vickers and the Olivier award-winning Sara Crowe. For the first time since its premiere in 1957, John Osborne’s classic is given a vibrant new setting and an electric new vision in Sean O’Connor’s exciting production.
Churchill Theatre, Bromley
MON 4 – SAT 9 NOVEMBER 2019