Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Review The Entertainer

The Entertainer
by John Osborne

The End Of The Pier Show

When music hall declined in post Second World War Britain, it wasn't just shows and venues that were lost. A whole economic infrastructure of halls linked by the railway network, agents, theatrical digs and a communal experience was also ousted.

Written by John Osborne at the age of 27, The Entertainer charts the dying days of veteran Archie Rice's (Kenneth Branagh) musical hall and end-of-the-pier act on to which he has tacked on a nude revue to keep the punters coming.

Archie lives hand-to-mouth, a boarding house life on the circuit with his second wife Phoebe ( a magnificently blowsy and touching Greta Scaatchi) and his son Frank (Jonah Hauer-King), who has served a prison sentence for refusing compulsory military conscription. His daughter Jean (Sophie McShera) from Archie's first wife lives in London where she has become involved, on what seems to be a naive basis, in left wing politics.

Alongside their crumbling existence  is one of Britain's last doomed imperial military adventures in 1956 to stop the nationalization of the Suez Canal leading to the capture of the couple's son in the conflict, the more obediently conscripted Mick, while serving his country.

The set designed by Christopher Oram encloses the family's domestic space in a dilapidated music hall. Director Rob Ashford also chooses to blend stylizations from TV and film, music hall's nemeses, seeping into the family drama. This may well work on screen but, in terms of this play, sits more uneasily in a theatre.

So the showgirls are Billy Cotton glamour girls and Archie himself is reminiscent of a toned Gene Kelly rather than a seedy roué. Nonetheless, it's one interpretation, and one which may pay dividends when the show is broadcast on Thursday 27th October.

But we were not sure it does justice on stage to the structure of Osborne's play, surely a forerunner of shows such as Oh! What A Lovely War. The satire of The Entertainer also predates the raft of 1960s satire with Beyond The Fringe and That Was The Week That Was.  

It did strike us that in 1956 the name Archie was perhaps most readily associated with the popular radio ventriloquist doll Archie Andrews

This may give a way into the Brechtian variety show sequences and Archie's proclamation that he is "dead behind the eyes". It. even intersects with Osborne's Archie's love life with both the dummy and the entertainer with much younger girlfriends.  

Most of all, this turns Archie's performances, his set piece misogyny and racism into grotesque mouthpieces, inherited it seems partly from his father Billy (Gawn Grainger) who may also be the one with the connections and management skills.

There are moments of  power, especially in the second act when the fate of soldier son Mick resonates strongly with our times. But, although it is in the script, there is little sense of a family and entertainment industry caught in an unholy trap, a mirror of fractured global politics and ideologies.

In the end, this feels like a too controlled and manicured production rather than a deadly Cold War Swiftian dart.There's more to be mined here and it's an amber light from TLT and her automotive music hall stooge.

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