Post war post 1945 Britain was a country that had lost an empire and not yet found a role. Sound familiar? The 2016 referendum result can be seen as the culmination of a national neurosis which has been festering since the 1950s.
In 1957, 27-year-old John Osborne, who had made his name as an angry young man with his ground-breaking kitchen sink drama Don’t Look Back in Anger the previous year, wrote The Entertainer. In this play he managed to create a play of such profound prescience and pathos that it caused sensation at the time and still speaks to us 60 years later.
Osborne’s genius was to write about a family in the musical hall business whose decline stood as a metaphor for Britain. He made this parallel come alive on three levels, the political, the cultural and the personal. He put Britain on the stage in the guise of the extended Rice family over three generations. Living under one roof the dysfunctional Rice family stands for the slow decline of post-imperial Britain. And Archie Rice (Shane Richie, wonderful) the washed up music hall performer is the everyman standing in for Britain’s national identity crisis. To give the play a sharper focus director Sean O’Connor has shifted the setting from 1956 and the Suez Crisis onto 1982 and The Falklands war. The relevance to Britain in 2019 is obvious for all to see.
The political analogy between the loss of empire and the decline of the music hall is a master stroke. At one point Archie Rice says to the audience (brilliantly we are both the musical hall audience and the audience for the play, The Entertainer) don’t clap too hard, you might bring the building down. The fragility of the old Victorian music halls echoing the fragility of post war Britain. Archie’s boast that he hasn’t paid any income tax for twenty years is a wonderful shorthand for national economic woes. We simply haven’t got any money. Then as now migration looms large. Grandpa Billy Rice (Pip Donaghy) sitting in the living room with a picture of the Queen on the wall, opens the play with the words “Foreigners I hate ’em”. His son Archie, part Alf Garnet, part Bernard Manning, part Jim Davidson, tells anti-foreigner jokes. The house they live in, like the house in Rising Damp, has a black ballet dancer downstairs and Poles upstairs. Osborne’s prescience in identifying immigration as a key component of our national identity crisis has stood the test of time. The rich vein of xenophobia has been played on over and over again, Sir Oswald Mosley, Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher (swamped speech in 1979) and most recently Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. Anti-Semitism features too. Archie plans to sell the act (by analogy Britain) to Rubens and Klein. The play catches the cultural winds of change. Music hall is on the way out. Rock n Roll, TV and the cinema are on the way in. This is poignantly captured in the living room, where the piano gives way to the TV. There is real pathos in the loss of the old ways of singing around the Joanna with a bottle of Double Diamond, to the passive watching of the box in the corner. Bill has a wonderful monologue in which he reminisces about the old days when everyone wore a hat. And everyone lifted his hat when a hearse went by and everyone took their hat off going past the cenotaph. In these moments of nostalgic pathos The Entertainer movingly evokes a world we have lost. The feeling of being conflicted is what gives the play its emotional heft.
Finally the personal level. Archie Rice is a man out of time. His macho, misogynist, racist ways just don’t cut it anymore. His tragedy is that he has the self-knowledge to know it but he just can’t bring himself to give up on the music hall. He’s like a punch drunk boxer who just wants to get back into the ring for one more fight. Movingly Archie breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience: “you see behind these eyes I’m dead”. His daughter Jean (Diana Vickers, who is superb) is an angry young woman. She has been on an anti-war demonstration in Trafalgar Square. She is obviously the voice of the younger generation. She has a memorable line about the people and the monarchy: “What do they get out of it ? The wave of a gloved hand from a gold coach.” The Entertainer put Britain under the microscope. The fault lines that were revealed (the north vs the south, the host population vs the migrants, men vs women, Britain and the world) are still with us. This new production of The Entertainer proves just as fresh just as insightful and just as provocative as the original.
Review by John O’Brien
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.
The Entertainer at Richmond Theatre
Monday 25th November to Saturday 30th November 2019.
Book Tickets for Richmond Theatre