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