Fam­ily for­tunes

They say you only hurt the ones you love and Michael Billing­ton sur­veys three plays in which strife hits close to home

Country Life Every Week - - Performing Arts -

I’m a lucky chap. I am old enough to have seen, while still a school­boy, Lau­rence Olivier play Archie Rice in John Os­borne’s The En­ter­tainer in 1957. I’ve seen half a dozen pro­duc­tions since then and am con­vinced that Os­borne cre­ated not only a great star part, but a res­o­nant play: one that sums up the mud­dle of feel­ings sur­round­ing Bri­tain’s in­va­sion of Suez in 1956. How­ever, the lat­est re­vival at the Gar­rick Theatre, star­ring Ken­neth Branagh and di­rected by Rob Ash­ford, left a mixed im­pres­sion: ad­mi­ra­tion for the act­ing com­bined with a sense that the pro­duc­tion was wrong-headed.

Os­borne’s great achieve­ment was to have used a dy­ing mu­sic hall as a metaphor for post-im­pe­rial Bri­tain. Os­borne’s anti-hero, Archie Rice, is a clapped-out comic staving off bank­ruptcy by tour­ing the halls with a tatty re­vue that com­bines jin­go­ism with nu­dity. ‘Don’t clap too hard—it’s a very old build­ing,’ says Archie in a line that could re­fer to the theatre or to the na­tion it­self.

The rifts caused by the Suez in­va­sion are also neatly en­cap­su­lated within Archie’s own fam­ily. His fa­ther, Billy, is an Ed­war­dian sur­vivor who re­sents Bri­tain be­ing pushed around by for­eign­ers. One son is on ac­tive ser­vice in Egypt, an­other has been jailed as a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor and daugh­ter Jean is one of the many who joined antigov­ern­ment protests in Trafal­gar Square.

The vi­tal­ity of the play rests on Os­borne’s abil­ity to off­set Archie’s front-cloth num­bers with scenes of do­mes­tic con­flict among the squab­bling Rices. In­evitably, the two seg­ments over­lap, but, in this pro­duc­tion, they ac­tu­ally merge, which I think is a mis­take. By sur­round­ing Archie with four lis­some chorines, mr Ash­ford un­der­plays the squalor of 1950s mu­sic hall. He also in­creas­ingly treats Archie’s rou­tines as a by-prod­uct of his fam­ily life: at one point, a manic row leads into a num­ber that sug­gests Archie is suf­fer­ing a form of ner­vous break­down.

The irony is that mr Branagh was born to play Archie Rice. He’s a nat­u­ral comic, as he proved years ago play­ing Touch­stone in As You Like It and as he showed more re­cently in The Painkiller at the Gar­rick. He also has the ca­pac­ity to sound emo­tional depths as he re­vealed in his re­mark­able per­for­mance as mac­beth. He brings both qual­i­ties to Archie: he cracks ter­ri­ble jokes with dead-eyed panache and shows the des­per­a­tion and self-loathing of a man pre­pared to sell his wife and fa­ther down the river in or­der to sur­vive. It’s a bravura per­for­mance, but it would be even bet­ter if the pro­duc­tion of­fered a clearer de­mar­ca­tion be­tween the pub­lic and pri­vate Archie.

In the event, the best per­for­mance comes from Gawn Grainger as Billy Rice: he of­fers a flaw­less por­trayal of man striv­ing to pre­serve his dig­nity in a ram­shackle mod­ern world. Greta Scac­chi as Archie’s wife and Jonah Hauerk­ing as his an­gry son pro­vide ex­cel­lent sup­port, but it’s a pro­duc­tion that doesn’t do full jus­tice to Os­borne’s his­toric play.

I don’t want to nag on about di­rec­tors, but I also feel that Blanche mcin­tyre, in her de­but pro­duc­tion for the RSC, hasn’t en­tirely got to grips with The Two No­ble Kins­men at Strat­ford-on-avon’s Swan Theatre. The play, first seen in 1613, is now com­monly at­trib­uted to John Fletcher and Wil­liam Shake­speare. It of­fers a tragi-comic

All his world’s a stage: Rob Ash­ford’s pro­duc­tion of The En­ter­tainer too closely melds the pub­lic and pri­vate lives of Archie Rice (Ken­neth Branagh, far left)

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