Many revivals find ways to update their production to engage a modern audience. Unfortunately, despite its name, The Entertainer wasn’t all that entertaining.
The Entertainer takes us back to 1956 during the decline of the British Empire. In John Osborne’s play, a dying music hall is used as a metaphor for the state of the country and also represents the way we want others to perceive us and how we actually perceive ourselves.
Perhaps younger audience members could do with a bit of historical context before seeing the show. It takes place during the Suez Crisis, an invasion of Egypt by Israel, the United Kingdom and France with the aim of taking control of the Suez Canal and ousting the Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser. In theory, this subject matter should easily resonate with a modern audience as should the plays tackling of hostile attitude toward foreigners – evident from its opening line – but relegated to the background story it’s a bit hit and miss and feels dated.
The play easily flows between its two sets, designed by Christopher Oram, the music hall and the Rice’s house. Rob Ashford, in the directing chair, even manages to effortlessly blend the two when one of Archie’s performances becomes relevant to the current conversation in the house.
Kenneth Branagh proves there is no role too big for him as he takes on Archie Rice, most famously played by Laurence Olivier. There is nothing Branagh cannot do, he’s a first class actor, a pretty decent singer and can even bust a few moves (his tap skills are rather impressive). It is Branagh who manages to bring some light to a play that mainly focuses on dark times.
The rest of the cast are a mixed bag. Gawn Grainger, who plays Archie’s dad also gives a highly entertaining performance as a man who is both nostalgic for a different past and disillusioned with the multi-cultural times he finds himself in. The other characters often suggest that he is going senile but it doesn’t seem so in the slightest. Similarly, Greta Scacchi, playing Archie’s wife Phoebe, wonderfully conveys a multitude of emotions: anger, hysteria and grief for a life she wishes she could have. Overall she’s the play’s most loveable character. Sophie McShera as Jean, Archie’s daughter, doesn’t quite match up. She often misses the mark between projecting and shouting and her expression and tone never change regardless of the situation. Jean’s half-brother Frank (Jonah Hauer-King) makes a brief appearance and as well as being delightful to watch has a great singing voice.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what was so hit and miss about this production. However, it can be said that this is not the highlight of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season.
The Entertainer plays at The Garrick until November 12. There is a live broadcast to cinemas on October 27.
Photo: Johan Persson