29th August, 2019
‘Because, Grandad, somehow – with a whole lot of other people, strange as it may seem – I managed to get myself steamed up about the way things were going’
There’s no question about the timeliness of The Entertainer (1957). Walking through Leicester city centre on the way to Curve (which has had a bit of a spruce up over the summer – looking great!), there was a crowd gathering at Clock Tower for the ‘Defend Democracy’ demonstration. Placards read ‘Boris is a DICKtator’ and ‘Resist the parliament shut down’. It’s hard not to draw parallels between the collective call to action around the country’s current political situation and Jean’s (Diana Vickers) speech about going to a rally in Trafalgar Square. The backdrop to the play, as Osborne wrote it, was the Suez Crisis. Here, in Sean O’Connor’s occasionally hectic production, the action has been updated to 1982 during the Falklands War. It’s on this landscape that we see washed-up music hall comedian Archie Rice (Shane Richie) dying on stage twice nightly to thankless crowds at a seaside resort. Overall, Osborne paints a bleak picture of Britain at a time of cultural change and national uncertainty on the world stage.
Bringing the setting (closer) into living memory is a sound decision, evoking more tangible political crises and reflections of Britain as a depleted power. O’Connor uses the scene changes to project headlines from The Sun which drum up patriotism around the conflict. The stand-up routines which are interspersed break up the more ‘kitchen sink’ scenes are also updated to 80s end-of-the pier comedy. Richie comes out dressed as Thatcher at one point, and earlier does a Falklands-inspired rendition of the Dad’s Army theme. Again, this makes sense as the 80s saw a change in once-popular forms of comedy overlooked for more alternative streams – a sketch from Not the Nine O’Clock News is played at one point.
This brings us to the production’s biggest draw and head-scratcher: Shane Richie as Archie Rice. His casting is a brave choice and it mostly works. He particularly plays the excruciating stand-up scenes really well. Bursting through the stained gold curtain hanging from a crumbling proscenium arch accompanied by the Pearl & Dean theme, Richie brings the energy and experience of someone who’s clearly been a professional comedian. In the early stages of growing a mullet and adorning a purple sparkly jacket and cheap gold bling, Richie does an admirable job of getting into character. And because we know Richie to be a high-energy performer, we are given a strange, metatheatrical sense of what Rice might have been like in his heyday. His act now, however, is packed with embarrassing silly walks, knob gags and outright sexism. Resting an arm on the microphone stand and chastising the audience, we can see the defeat in his eyes. It’s a memorable and strong performance, and the dramaturgy (that I presume was done by O’Connor himself?) mostly holds up. What’s less convincing though is his cut-glass accent in the other scenes. Maybe feeling the weight of previous Archie Rices Olivier and Branagh, it seems to jar with the character’s London working class background. This confusion is added to by the fact that all of the characters are doing different accents, although this could be a performance choice as it does add to the disparate nature of the Rice family.
Although it’s a less flashy role, Vickers gives a noteworthy and earnest performance as Rice’s daughter Jean. She has recently ‘probably’ broken off her engagement after realising that ‘you could love somebody… and then suddenly find that you’re neither of you even living in the same world’. Her sense of loss and frustration about the amount of apathy in the world and wanting to do something about it gives the play a much-needed sense of hope. Where the rest of the characters are insular, she is part of a changing, outward looking society. The most poignant bit of the play comes when Archie is mid-joke about meeting two nuns in the street when he sees the look in her eyes. There’s probably nothing more heart-breaking for Archie than feeling he has to stop mid-routine, but he does so, sits down deflated and pleas with her: ‘Talk to me’.
Sara Crowe as Archie’s alcoholic wife Phoebe and Pip Donaghy as his dad both give good performances, both in their own sort of stasis around Archie’s desperate cheerful façade. The Entertainer is an interesting state-of-the-nation play, although undoubtedly odd especially now it’s a period piece. But as it plays through Autumn, and possibly multiple political dramas, it’s undeniably a prescient time to revive it.
The Entertainer plays at Curve, Leicester until 31st August, followed by a UK tour until 30th November. For more information visit https://www.theentertainerplay.co.uk/tour/