This fiftieth anniversary production of John Osborne’s flawed but fascinating play is a lively affair even though the work hasn’t dated very well. Like its predecessor Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer is full of passionate rhetoric about the rotten state of post-war Britain which sounds radical but is actually nostalgic. As Osborne revealed later as he became an angry old man, like Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, he was an incorrigible malcontent with regard to modernity.
Set in 1956 in a southern English seaside town (Brighton?) the play revolves around the dysfunctional Rice family. Archie is one of the last music-hall performers, a dying breed being replaced by Windmill Theatre-style nude revues, which he now presents with cringeworthy patter and crude innuendo. In debt and burnt out, Archie’s failure is contrasted with his retired father Billy’s glorious years in the business.
When Archie’s captured elder son is reported to have been released by the enemy in the Suez War, the quarrelling Rice family initially come together, but the cessation in domestic hostilities is as short lived as the good news. As Archie’s long-suffering and cantankerous wife Phoebe drowns her sorrows in gin and his idealistic daughter Jean rails against the government for their warmongering and Archie for his philandering, his younger son Frank feels guilty for being a conscientious objector while his brother risks his life for his country.
Osborne’s structure of alternating domestic scenes with Archie’s routine on stage works very well (especially as we can see the family behind through translucent curtains), with the two sometimes merging. The central metaphor of the outmoded music hall representing the declining British Empire is interesting but over-emphatic. The play is saved from being a mere period piece by Osborne’s skill for creating vivid characters and writing powerful dialogue. Sean Holmes’s well-balanced production captures both the vitriolic and the elegiac qualities of the play, as family and nation fall apart.
Any actor playing Archie Rice has to face unenviable comparisons with the legendary Laurence Olivier who created the role (captured superbly on film), but Robert Lindsay gives a first-rate portrait of a fifth-rate entertainer. His comic song and dance act is full of pathos and desperation we can this is a man ‘dead behind the eyes’ though he doesn’t quite touch the emotions enough off-stage.
John Normington gives a quiet dignity to Billy Rice without disguising his irritating habit of going on about the good old days. Pam Ferris reveals Phoebe’s deep-seated unhappiness under her maternal warmth, while Emma Cunniffe makes a somewhat self-righteous Jean and David Dawson’s sensitive Frank prefers to continue the family showbiz tradition as a singer/pianist in a seedy bar away from the limelight.