Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘The Entertainer’ which is at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until Saturday 12th October, and then Coventry, Brighton, Manchester, Bromley, Cheltenham, Shrewsbury and Richmond.
I’ve been performing now, one way or another, for over 40 years and I’m just beginning to consider my exit strategy. Already I can hear the Fat Lady warming up. But poor old Archie Rice has no plans to give up on his age-old Music Hall routine … until the Music Halls give up on him.
Our deeply boorish anti-hero is stupendously well portrayed by Shane Richie in Sean O’Connor’s revival of John Osborne’s 1956 play. After far too many years treading the increasingly creaky boards, Archie has gone dangerously close to seed; bleached out by decades under the spotlight.
Richie’s performance is technically superb as he picks up on all the traits of an entertainer who is well past his sell-by-date. The delivery of his patter has become desperately artificial. The ugly wife jokes are told with aggression. The fact that we find ourselves laughing at them is a source of embarrassment. But, by now, Archie has long lost any respect for his audience and simply doesn’t care.
It’s a tough role, previously entrusted to Knights of the acting realm such as Olivier and Branagh. But Richie matches them wonderfully. The fact that any actor at the top of his trade can see so clearly into the abyss, and reproduce it with such cutting conviction is quite amazing. Richie’s technique is an absolute joy to watch, as he steers his character relentlessly towards his inevitable career car crash.
This production is worth seeing for his performance alone. But the decision to update the backdrop of the play from the Suez Crisis of 1956 to the Falklands Conflict of 1982 is so visionary it is breath-taking.
Rice’s son Mick is now part of the South Atlantic Expeditionary Force; it’s progress charted above the stage by the red top tabloid headlines of the day; many of which are as unpalatable as Rice’s patter.
We hear Margaret Thatcher’s Saint Francis of Assisi speech and see an image of Eva Peron, arms outstretched, frighteningly morph into one of Thatcher in a similar gesture on the steps of Number 10. Archie even does a drag act of the Prime Minister singing “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Argentina” to labour point.
When the curtain rises on Archie’s private life, we are invited into a patriotic household with Union Jack bunting and a portrait of Her Majesty on the wall. But, in typical Osborne style, it is a home full of alcohol-fuelled bickering and back-biting. Pip Donaghy shines here, as Archie’s dad Billy Rice, who trod the board himself when vaudeville was still king. He has a wonderfully rapid- rabbiting style of talking, as if his quick-fire stage routine has been brought home. Donaghy plays him with the pathos of the past-over lonely old man, the warmth of loving granddad, and with the loyalty of a trooper who would even go back on stage himself to give his son’s faded dream one last chance.
Alice Osmanski, stepping into the role of Archie’s unloved wife Phoebe, gives a splendid performance as a woman pinioned in her place by a hollow monster so painfully in self-denial. She visibly crumples, latching on to ‘rows about nothing’ just to gain attention. Yet, it is she who determinedly orchestrates Archie’s escape … as the audiences dwindle and the tax man circles.
This play is still jolly uncomfortable to watch – just as John Osborne intended it to be 50 years ago. But I couldn’t help but hugely admire it: both for the author’s original thinking and the production’s highly intelligent update. It sits so neatly in the 80s; between The Sex Pistols and Mary Hopkins and between the agro and the sentimentality of that polarised society.
The Fat Lady might be beckoning for me, but the show is far from all over for this excellent revival, as it seers its way round the UK. Like Archie Rice himself, it’s doing all the halls.