Saturday 27th August 2016, matinée
We’re sure it was no coincidence that Kenneth Branagh’s season at the Garrick Theatre has been topped and tailed by two plays about performers – Harlequinade, an affectionate homage to a post-war travelling theatre company, perhaps a little rose-tinted; and ‘The Entertainer’, a bitter and rage-filled howl of desperation, where any rosy spectacles have long since been crushed underfoot. This was a must-see for us – having see Michael Sheen on electrifying form as Jimmy Porter in ‘Look Back in Anger’ many years ago, we wanted to see what all the fuss was about with what is sometimes dubbed John Osborne’s attempt to portray an ‘Angry Old Man’, Archie Rice, the failing music hall performer trying to avoid the moment when he has to hang up his tap shoes for the last time.
One of the first things that strikes us about his play is how slight it is, considering the huge amount of expectation that must have been placed on it. It really is a ‘slice of life’ with no real character arc for Archie. The structure of the play seems more like a mechanism for showing the contrast between the grim, gin-soaked triviality of the family arguments and brief moments of camaraderie, Archie’s acerbic ranting, and the paper thin mask of amused detachment with which he churns out various faded patriotic numbers, just as the Suez crisis is marking the beginning of the end of Empire (or is that the end of the end?).
Bizarrely, the truly dramatic and even tragic events seem almost incidental, but perhaps this is a reflection the central character’s self-absorbed and nihilistic perspective on life.
At one point, Archie describes his decline as a performer – he can still cut it, but there is no passion anymore – he is dead behind the eyes. Kenneth Branagh takes this self-diagnosis to the limit, with a performance driven by a maddening lightheartedness that treats everything as meaningless. His quick-silver intelligence cannot be pinned down, but it infuses everything with poisonous indifference. He brings out the humour in the writing, but it only adds to the ultimate despair by giving us glimpses of a talent that seems to be constantly on the verge of bursting into life. He is literally bouncing off the walls to try to convince himself he is still alive.
Greta Scacchi is Phoebe, Archie’s long-suffering second wife, who feels like a failure despite having pulled off the impressive feat of putting up with him for all these years and bringing up his three children. Scacchi somehow conveys that strength of character while simultaneously denying it, making her one of the more sympathetic characters on stage. We are not sure why, but her outrage at Billy Rice making a start on the special cake she had bought for her son’s return was both tragic and hilarious. Gawn Grainger as Billy Rice, Archie’s father and mentor has a nice line in passive aggression. As the retired old stager, he has nothing to prove, and he seems to be the only one trying (in vain) to enjoy life.
Is there enough here to enliven and truly ‘revive’ Osborne’s original? Sadly we’d have to say that the quality of the production exposes the flaws in a play which now seems out of its time.