Misplaced Nostalgia For A Past With Little Relevance Now
Morning Star Online, 14 September 2016
John Osborne's 'The Entertainer', first staged in 1957, takes a clapped-out seaside vaudeville entertainer Archie Rice and his family as a metaphor for the post-war frustration and decline of Britain as a world imperial power, with the backdrop of the Suez crisis as the final blow to Britain’s lingering imperial illusions.
That malaise is personified in Rice (Kenneth Branagh). Driven by waning talent and the widespread decay of the music hall, he is trying to retrieve his fortunes by running a nude show but even this seedy venture fails and he ends up having more creditors than audiences.
Branagh cannot quite capture that mixture of physical bravura and despair which Laurence Olivier famously, and definitively, brought to the role in 1957.
Far too chipper and slick, he’s surrounded by glamorous dancing girls, a staging device which hardly chimes with his fading fortunes.
Sophie McShera as Jean, Archie’s daughter, supposedly embodies the political voice of a future, different Britain. But she’s something of a disappointment, with a delivery stuck on one shrill note which misses Jean’s quiet strength and longing.
Grandfather Billy Rice (Gawn Grainger), a successful vaudeville act in his own day, represents a supposedly more secure and stable past while at the same embodying Osborne’s own nostalgia for the lost age of music hall. Yet while Grainger strives to bring the sense of faded grandeur to life, he does not quite achieve the “dignified Edwardian diction” Osborne insisted upon.
By contrast, Greta Scacchi is a revelation as Archie’s blowsy alcoholic wife, successfully capturing a sense of anguish and despair that is missing elsewhere.
Christopher Oram’s design tries, but does not quite succeed, in combining the decaying Edwardian domestic space of the Rice family with the stage-within-a-stage of Archie’s performances. It results in awkward moments as the characters freeze in situ while Archie dances between them, rattling off his comic patter.
Rob Ashford’s production seeks to bring a new energy and dynamism to the play but doesn’t quite succeed.
The past, Suez-crisis Britain, comes across here as very much another country — today’s problems and anxieties are so radically different that we cannot really see ourselves through the prism of 'The Entertainer'’s protagonists.