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A CurtainUp London Review
The Entertainer
"You don't look at the mantelpiece when you poke the fire.." — Billy Rice
The Entertainer
Kenneth Branagh as /Archie Rice (Photo: Johan Persson)
The opening image is beautiful and romantic. A smoke filled room is lit by a dull spotlight and the blurred figure of a man in a vest and trousers with suspenders is dancing alone, rehearsing a dance routine with precise footwork for the tap. This lone dancer is joined by girls, all dressed in silk dressing gowns or diaphanous petticoats, pretty show girls. This is the slightly seedy world that the music hall has become before the age of television takes its hold on audiences in the 1950s.

Christopher Oram's set leaves no doubt that we are in a theatre but confuses exactly which side of the curtain we are with spotlights at floor level at the front of the stage but a decorated proscenium arch to the rear as seen by the audience from the auditorium. Behind there is a giant advertising poster for the seaside resorts of the North of England, except that it is November and the wind off the sea would be bitterly cold.

Jean Rice (Sophie McShera) is visiting her family. She comes from several generations of music hall entertainers andis talking to her grandfather Billy Rice (Gawn Grainger who took over the role after John Hurt had to pull out). Their conversation serves to set the scene for us. Billy talks about the local pubs with familiarity decrying the efforts of theatre managements to retain dwindling audiences with nudity, of girls of course!

John Osborne is the original angry young man playwright. The Entertainer was written a year after Look Back in Anger which had introduced Jimmy Porter to the theatre going public. Osborne has woven into this play his distaste for some of his relatives on his mother's side, the Grove family known for their arguments and rowdiness. Certainly Billy Rice is vulgar as he sums up the patrons of a local pub, "Every tart and pussy boy in the district is in that place. It's a meat market."

In between scenes set in the theatrical digs, we see Archie Rice trying to engage the audience with bad jokes and lack lustre songs. His first song sums up his attitude with "Why Should I Care?" Greta Scacchi is Archie Rice's second wife, Phoebe who is drinking gin to drown her unhappiness at Archie's continued infidelity, Scacci is excellent in the role but Sophie McShera's Jean seemed tense and appeared to be shouting her lines. The hideous stage make up uglifies Branagh, as distasteful as his loud suits and failing patter and his private racism. He is not a figure you warm to, nor one you would pay to go to see.

I'm not sure that this end of the music hall play is an effective metaphor for the fall of the British Empire and Eden's humiliation over Suez. Jean may represent the coming generation with her support for the Trafalgar Square peace demonstration but her brothers fall on either side of the military divide. Frank (Jonah Hauer-King) will serve time in prison for being a conscientious objector and Mick, whom we never see, has joined the army. Somehow it is not a play of revelation or discovery but one reflecting a sense of dissatisfaction and failure.

There will be an opportunity to judge for yourself when the play is live streamed to cinemas on Thursday 27th October.

For my review of Sean Holmes' revival of The Entertainer in 2007 go here.

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The Entertainer
Written by John Osborne
Directed by Rob Ashton
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Greta Scacci, Gawn Grainger
With: Phil Dunster, Jonah Hauer-King, Crispin Letts, Sophie McShera
Dancers: Lauren Alexander, Yasmin Harrison, Pip Jordan, Kate Tydman
Choreographer: Chris Bailey
Set and Costume Design: Christopher Oram
Lighting Design: Neil Austin
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Composer: Patrick Doyle
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0330 333 4811
Booking to 12th November 2016
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 30th August 2016 performance at The Garrick Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0HH (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)
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