John Osborne's The Entertainer is one of those iconic plays of the 1950s Royal Court that along with Look Back in Anger, that premiered the year before by the same playwright, ushered in a wholesale revolution to British theatre -- and saw even theatre establishment figures like Laurence Olivier join in and re-calibrate their careers in the process, just as John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson would do with Pinter's No Man's Land nearly two decades later at the National Theatre.
It carries a lot of baggage in the process -- but the play also earns the weight it bears. It's a haunting cry of anguish from the frontline of bitter British disappointments, both at the nation's own standing in the world -- shaken as it was at the time by the disastrous Suez engagement -- and of one man's place in it, the music hall entertainer Archie Rice whose own career is faltering as the theatres where he ploughed his trade are falling in popularity.
It's a play that combines the personal and the political in close juxtaposition: there are poignant echoes of the outside world intruding, as Archie's daughter Jean puts her own relationship in jeopardy when she joins an anti-war demonstration, and her brother becomes a casualty of the conflict. But Osborne also powerfully frames the play around Archie Rice's bleak circumstances, from which he can see no escape. The bits of his own act that we are made privy to make it absolutely clear why he's reaching the end of the road as an entertainer: virtually all his jokes land flat.
It takes a bold, brave performer to offer a shambling, stumbling man in such a raw state; and while Kenneth Branagh gives a shimmering glimmer of the man he wishes he was in a fantasy-like dance sequence of concentrated power that opens the show, he's also an immensely solitary character: trapped, literally, in a spotlight.
It's a beautiful performance in a beautiful play. Director Rob Ashford creates impressionistic transitions between the sometimes abstract qualities of those performance moments that also include a full chorus of four dancers and a live onstage band and the hard realities of the emptiness he articulates so painfully.
Music hall is dying, as Osborne noted in an introduction to the published text, "and with it a significant part of England." But this is no nostalgia fest, but a keenly felt portrait of a man dying before our eyes, too. Set against Christopher Oram's set that puts an entire crumbling proscenium arch stage onto the stage that we are looking at ourselves, it is a constantly riveting production, full of texture and grace thanks not just to Branagh but also the performances of Gawn Grainger as his father Billy, and Greta Scacchi as his devoted second wife Phoebe.
It's a wonderful send-off to Branagh's 13 month residency at the helm of his own company in the West End. I hope he returns with another season soon.
What the Press Said...
"The evening is bookended by beautiful, solitary silhouettes of Archie and, for all the shadow cast by Olivier, Branagh triumphs in style."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Ashford captures neither the glorified tat of 1950s music hall – where you would never have found such a svelte quartet of dancers as you have here – nor the way Suez split families much as Brexit does today. He gives us a razzle-dazzle show but, for all Branagh’s skill, it is not quite the one Osborne intended."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The Entertainer tends to be hailed as a ‘state of the nation play’. The trouble with state of the nation plays is that the state of the nation can change, sometimes for the better. Then the play feels glum and negative and a bit so-what-ish."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"As for Osborne’s play, it hasn’t aged all that well, with its flashes of misogyny now pretty hard to stomach. Yet it still has unsettling resonance as a portrait of Britain in decline, and it’s a fitting vehicle for Branagh as he wraps up his year-long residency at the Garrick Theatre."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard