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Reviews London TheatreReviewsWest End & Central Published 2 September 2016

Review: The Entertainer at the Garrick Theatre

Garrick Theatre ⋄ 20th August - 12th November 2016

Domestic and national disintegration: Neil Dowden reviews the The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s production of The Entertainer.

Neil Dowden
The Entertainer at the Garrick Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson.

The Entertainer at the Garrick Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson.

The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company close their admirable year-long residency in the West End with John Osborne’s 1957 state-of the-nation play The Entertainer. In it a parallel is drawn between the decline of the music hall and the waning of the British Empire, as the ‘nudies’ supplant the traditional entertainers in a seaside theatre and Britain undergoes humiliation in the 1956 Suez Crisis showing it is no longer a big player on the world stage.

Excerpts of second-rate variety artist Archie Rice performing in front of an unresponsive audience in a half-empty auditorium are intercut with scenes of family strife at home as they await news of the older son’s involvement in the war in Egypt. Pacifist younger son Frank has just been released from six months in jail, and socialist daughter Jean has broken with her fiancé after attending an anti-war demonstration in Trafalgar Square. While Archie’s retired music-hall star father Billy grumbles about things not being what they used to be as foreigners are taking over, his second wife Phoebe worries about the future. Meanwhile, the unfaithful, fraudulent and heavily indebted Archie is dancing on borrowed time.

Written straight after his trail-blazing Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer also features a disaffected younger generation thrusting for change in class-bound post-war Britain, but here the focus is on a man in mid-life crisis and Osborne’s tone is more elegiac. Though characteristically verbose and getting bogged down in somewhat static, gin-induced mutual recriminations, the play resonates a strong feeling of domestic and national disintegration.

Director Rob Ashford has merged the theatre setting with the Rices’ digs to emphasise the performative elements, though this acts against the public mask/private face dichotomy. Christopher Oram’s striking design of tawdry gilt proscenium arch and peeling frescoes, with props strewn on the sides of the stage, and a seaside railway poster backdrop, sets the fading theatrical scene nicely. But the four alluring female dancers’ choreography by Chris Bailey is more nightclub cabaret than tacky revue.

Famously the part of Archie Rice was created by Laurence Olivier, the first of his generation of actors to embrace the new wave of drama pioneered at the Royal Court, where he wowed audiences with his song and dance routines and charismatic pathos, immortalised on film. So often compared to Olivier in his career, Branagh strongly conveys a performer who is putting on an act even offstage as he denies reality and shirks responsibility, but he lacks Olivier’s seedy glamour. Branagh’s camp stand-up patter is suitably saucy and he convinces as a man near the end of his tether (‘I’m dead behind these eyes’), but his jaunty tap dancing is almost too slick, while he seems a bit too wholesome for such a morally ambivalent role.

There’s a strong cast supporting cast. Gawn Grainger (a late replacement for the indisposed John Hurt) excels as the nostalgic but racist Billy who waxes lyrical about the Edwardian good old days, while fuming at the ‘Bloody Poles and Irish’, and Greta Scacchi also impresses as the long-suffering Phoebe who wants some security in her life. Sophie McShera is a little insipid as the idealistic Jean, but Jonah Hauer-King’s Frank is an angry young man with sensitivity who realises his father is on his last legs.

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Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

Review: The Entertainer at the Garrick Theatre Show Info


Directed by Rob Ashford

Written by John Osborne

Cast includes Kenneth Branagh, Phil Dunster, Gawn Grainger, Jonah Hauer-King, Crispin Letts, Sophie McShera, Greta Scacchi

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