16 September 2019
When John Osborne wrote ‘The Entertainer’, the Suez crisis was consuming the nation and thus he used it as the backdrop for his gritty tale of a failed song and dance man, a failed Father, Son and Husband. Weaving back and forth from Music Hall stage to domestic life, Osborne pitched grenades at the politics of his country, the social inadequacies of the time and the futility of the war that had dominated news headlines.
Taking the play and updating it to 1982 when The Falklands War was taking place, is a clever device which will resonate with those for whom 1956 is something of a stretch to recall. The targets of the script are the same, but a remodelling of the central character, Archie Rice, into a stand-up comedian works well and echoes both the ‘alternative’ comedy of the time and offers new targets, not least in the guise of Margaret Thatcher.
Everything about the play is tinged – and in some cases, drenched, with failure. No one is a success and it is hard watching a group of people who take solace in alcohol to disguise their disgust at themselves and those around them. It is challenging theatre.
Taking a classic script and re-working it in this way is a risky business, but here it works very well indeed. Shane Ritchie is utterly riveting as Rice; a man chasing success and losing at every turn. He is at his best when delivering dire, tired and occasionally crude gags; working the audience with great ease. His contempt for his wife Phoebe is not easy to listen to particularly whilst watching Sara Crowe disintegrate before your eyes – this is a fine example of little being more; a heartbreaking performance of supreme control. Pip Donaghy is just wonderful as the veteran entertainer Billy who wants his son to succeed but somehow knows he won’t. As Archie’s feisty daughter Jean, Diana Vickers provides something of the voice of reason amidst the family ruins and she does so with conviction whilst Christopher Bonwell is the well meaning and fragile son Frank – a lovely gentle performance.
The detailed set for the Rice household leaves you in no doubt about the period we are in with what we would class as pretty tasteless decoration. Projected news headlines from The Sun newspaper provide plenty of reminders of what was happening during the time.
The original play provided songs for Archie to perform and these are replaced with contemporary numbers including one where he dresses as Thatcher herself – at a time of ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ and ‘Spitting Image’ it seemed entirely appropriate.
If the final 30 minutes of the plays seem a little drawn out, as a whole it is never less than absorbing with fine acting and acute attention to detail. Director, Sean O’Connor, took a gamble in his approach to the play and it pays off mightily. Highly recommended.
CAST & CREATIVES
ARCHIE RICE – SHANE RITCHIE
JEAN RICE – DIANA VICKERS
PHOEBE RICE – SARA CROWE
BILLY RICE – PIP DONAGHY
FRANK RICE – CHRISTOPHER BONWELL
DIRECTOR – SEAN O’CONNOR
LIGHTING DESIGN – TIM MITCHELL
SOUND DESIGN – CHRIS JAMES
MUSICAL SUPERVISOR – GREG ARROWSMITH