Probably best remembered for his 'angry young man' play 'Look Back In Anger', John Osborne also wrote 'The Entertainer' which starred Laurence Olivier in it's opening run at the Royal Court Theatre in 1957. Half a century later, the artistic director of the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey, has enlisted Robert Lindsay to take up the Olivier mantle in the title role in this anniversary inspired revival.
England's music halls - which had enjoyed close on a century of prosperity entertaining the masses - were in decline in the post-war Britain of the 1950s. Their demise in a sense mirrored the decline of the British Empire which, only a few decades before, had held sway over a quarter of the world's population and one of the largest empires ever amassed on the face of the planet (depending, of course, on how you measure these things). No longer could Britain do what it liked in the world, as was shown in the events surrounding the Suez Crisis of 1956. And no longer could music hall proprietors rake in the cash so easily at the box offices. Osborne's play focuses on one family whose lives are bound-up in the music halls, in order to make larger political points about the declining empire.
Archie Rice is a philandering, old-style music hall entertainer - a cross between comedian and compere. His jokes and songs are second rate, and it's no wonder that he's on the brink of financial ruin in his attempts to keep alive a genre which is struggling against fierce competition from the likes of the film industry, radio, dance halls, TV and Rock and Roll.
The Rice family live in a run down boarding house in a seaside town. Archie's father, Billy, is a veteran of the music halls whose success overshadows his son's limp achievements. Archie is married to Phoebe, but as the play unfolds we discover that Archie already has plans to trade her in for a younger version. Archie's daughter, Jean, arrives home from London after having had a row with her boyfriend. In the days that follow, we see the impact of the Suez Crisis on the Rice family as son Mick is first captured, and then killed.
I've never been a great fan of Robert Lindsay, but his performance here is everything one could wish for. Lindsay is certainly adept in the song and dance department, easily convincing us that he's got what it takes - maybe even a little more so than is strictly necessary for an entertainer who is all-but third rate. Lindsay's Rice is a man who recognises his own limitations and foibles only too clearly, and loathes himself for 'doing the dirty' on those who depend on him as well as love him. However, it doesn't motivate him to change. But he's also a good-natured man who seeks to quiet the rages and antagonism of the other family members, and enjoy himself with a drink, a song and a laugh. It's hard not to like him, even a little.
Even though Lindsay's performance here is of the first order, it's really not his show. In a, literally, staggering performance, Pam Ferris's gin-swilling Phoebe is breathtakingly superb. Not only does Ferris portray a sad, lonely and somewhat pathetic Phoebe, there are times when (thanks to 'mother's ruin') she's fired up enough to direct scathing attacks on Archie, who can only sit back and take it, or try to laugh it off. But Ferris's performance is not simply drink-induced. When Billy comes into the living room from the kitchen, she delivers a deliciously venomous, but beautifully controlled attack with the line 'You've been at that cake!'. It's the kind of scene where you don't know whether you should really laugh or wince, but you have to laugh anyway.
Two fine performances, then, in the lead roles but much also to commend in the support. David Dawson mirrors the family traditions with some lively song and dance, and John Normington's Billy is a rambling, complaining retiree who nevertheless commands the respect of his family, and his son in particular.
The Entertainer, in one sense at least, is a timely revival. Like the Suez Crisis of the 1950s, Britain has become involved in a war in Iraq that has cost large numbers of people their lives, and livelihoods, and leaves all but those who initiated it wondering what it was all for. On the other hand, 'The Entertainer' feels a little dated, more interesting as a period kind of piece, than one for a modern generation brought up on rampant consumerism rather than the gloomy austerity of the early '50s. But 'The Entertainer' is more important than just a commentary on a declining empire. It bolstered Osborne's reputation as well as that of the Royal Court, sent Laurence Olivier in a new direction, and helped spawn a new wave of plays in British theatre. Though it now seems rather protracted in length, it has fascinating characters, and still works well on the simple level of a play about a family, as opposed to the larger theme of lost colonial power. And with a very fine cast, excellent direction and a set that's faithful to the times and the concept, this is an inspired revival that's highly recommended.
What the critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "I was caught in a haze of nostalgia, amusement and high emotion." SARAH HEMMING for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Sean Holmes’s fine production stokes up the energy and features some first-rate performances." ALICE JONES for THE INDEPENDENT says, "[Pam] Ferris is magnificent." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Fine production." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "It is impossible to praise [Robert] Lindsay's magnificent star performance too highly...Pam Ferris is unforgettable." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Fine production."