The most recent production of the John Osborne 1957 play, “The Entertainer” is currently showing at Richmond Theatre. It does exactly what it says on the tin – it entertains, but at a cost. How comfortable do you feel laughing at jokes and innuendos loaded with racism and sexism generally thought to have been abandoned at least a couple of decades ago? But this is a play dealing with international and cultural change and Shane Ritchie is brilliant in the role of Archie Rice, a washed up music hall song and dance man who is meant to represent Britain’s post colonial decline. He personifies perfectly the archetypal unreconstructed white male, who chooses to ignore that fact that his entertainment career hangs on by a thread, as the shifting appetite of his audience veers towards a new era of political satire.
The initial play was set against the backdrop of the Suez Crisis, but it has now been updated for the modern audience and sets itself during the Falklands war, where the Rice family are thrown firmly into the midst of it when their eldest son Mick, a soldier in the army, is taken prisoner. The emotions of the play constantly ebb and flow against the backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain, but the fragile highs always feel as if they are teetering on a wobbly foundation which is about to collapse at any moment. Archie’s family are unravelling before his eyes as he continues to paper over the cracks (of the flowery wallpaper) with gin, beer and terrible jokes as he persists in being the shallow, upbeat, fast-talking, hard drinking, tax dodging womaniser that he can’t seem to shake.
Historic stability (in manner of Alf Garnett) is found in Billy Rice, Archie’s father (played superbly by Pip Donaghy), a retired “Entertainer” who realised his profession was on borrowed time years ago – something Archie refuses to acknowledge, possibly because of the fear of a new challenging world raising its head.
Ironically, although there are strong elements of a sexist and misogynistic script, it’s the female characters who are pivotal in looking towards the future and moving the family forward. Phoebe, superbly played by Sara Crowe, Archie’s long-suffering alcoholic wife offers a glimmer of hope and opportunity for everyone in amongst the kitchen sink drama, whilst his daughter Jean, (brilliantly played by Diana Vickers) by his first marriage quietly challenges the family’s patriotism and jingoistic beliefs by asking “Why do our boys have to die?”
Probably the most poignant and real relationship in the play is the one between Jean and her Grandfather Billie. The love and respect they have for each other is almost tangible even though they have opposing values and cultural ideas. Frank, the other son (played by Christopher Bonwell), lives in the shadow of his father, almost frightened to step out into his own life although he gives glimpses of a desire for something better. There’s a prescient feel about issues embraced in this play but reassuringly hope does trickle through this dysfunctional family.
John Osborne is one of Britain’s most important and outspoken dramatists, disseminating rage and quiet desperation in droves and he wrote the “The Entertainer” when he was 26. It has been described as “one of the greatest plays of the 20th Century” by Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington and “The Entertainer” does indeed raise many concerns and questions and has a legacy of great actors (notably Lawrence Olivier) and directors who have put their own interpretation on this venerated drama.
This is not a modern classic, it’s dated, but it still works because of the strength of the characters and the time old message that threads through the play about stoicism and that “somehow we’ve just got to make a go of it”. Shane Richie’s performance is masterful. Watching him in his final stage performance singing “Those Were The Days My Friend” as he breaks down slowly but surely, exposing the raw difficulty of what it took back then to be a man, was very moving.
Sean O’Connor’s production definitely holds its own in this 2019 revival but looking around last night at the age of the audience, we did wonder whether the questionable humour and dated social opinions and comments will sit comfortably with a politically correct younger crowd or indeed whether it could be further updated to look at the modern “Influencer” as the new form of Entertainer.
We recommend they give it a try and would love to hear their feedback.