Review: The Entertainer

Branagh's muted Entertainer lacks power and poignancy


Kenneth Branagh's West End season finishes with a classic but far from definitive revival. John Osborne's 1957 play is an angry eulogy evoked by the decline of imperial Britain and also its anti-hero Archie Rice, a star of music hall.

Played most famously by Laurence Olivier in the original production, and later the film, too, Rice is a man whose professional life is in terminal decline. With his raffishly tilted boater, twirling cane and a routine performed so, well, routinely, from fixed smile to gags his act has become little more than an exercise in muscle memory. On stage he is a cliché whose only saving grace is that off stage he knows it.

When the action switches to his home populated by his father Billy (Gawn Granger) - a former showman and one of his son's fiercest critics - Branagh's Archie enters while still in gag-a-minute mode.

But the shadow of having one son in action in Suez and the banter of bitterness that passes between Archie and his second wife Phoebe (a victim of her husband's open infidelity, played by a terrifically in-form Greta Scacchi) eventually erodes that cheeky chappy mantle.

That transition is finely judged by Branagh, yet it ultimately reveals little more about Rice than world-weary resignation. The self-loathing is muted and so is the desperation. Rob Ashford's production evokes the fast-fading glory of both Rice and dour, 1950s Britain with the help of grainy newsreel. And whether by design or chance, arriving as this revival does soon after the EU referendum, it's easy to draw parallels with the laughably futile expressions of national prowess expressed here and those recently deployed by pro-Brexit campaigners.

The opening sequence in which Archie is seen in dim stage lighting, banging out a percussive rhythm with his tap shoes before being joined by a bevy of chorus girls, gets this show off on the wrong foot. The sequence feels more like a lament for a Broadway hoofer than the career of an entertainer whose stomping ground is Britain's coastal resorts.

Where this revival scores, though, is the scenes located in Rice's home. Comprised of not much more than a few pieces of furniture in front of Christopher Oram's design of a dilapidated Victorian theatre, there is unfortunately nothing suggesting the smart, if fading, town-house described by Osborne, which rather passes on the opportunity to hint as the heights of success enjoyed by Rice before his fall.

But the way the scenes are incorporated into the performer's psychological state, and also his stage act, has something of Miller's Death of a Salesman about it; and, as the Rice family fuel their verbal combat with gin, there is a sense of the play encroaching on O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. That these plays can even be spoken of in the same breath is testament to the enduring potency of Osborne's. But, here, his words generate only a fraction of their power.

Scacchi's Phoebe is a beautifully drawn portrait of woman whose aspirations are rooted in a modest background where there were none. Sophie McShera and Jonah Hauer-King are both terrific as the grown-up children wise to their father's shortcomings. But there is much more symbolism than poignancy as Branagh's Rice leaves the stage for the last time.

This may be the swan-song show of Branagh's uneven season. But, a little like Rice, he won't be massively missed by his audience.

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