Friday, 16 September 2016

The Entertainer

Sir Kenneth Branagh stars as a third-rate music-hall performer in this revival of John Osborne’s 1950s play

Written by Ian Shuttlesworth

A few months ago I opined here that, contrary to many people’s opinion – apparently including his own – Sir Kenneth Branagh isn’t actually that much cop at Shakespeare on stage. But that’s not to write him off as an actor or director. Even when he’s really labouring to place himself within a heritage, he can often pull it off, as he does here. The notorious Laurence Olivier comparisons began in 1989 with his film of Henry V; in the same year, he enjoyed success on stage in his own company’s revival of John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger. Now he brings the Olivier and Osborne strands together in The Entertainer as third-rate music-hall man Archie Rice, the role in which Olivier reinvented himself for a new generation in the late 1950s.

ianWith other actors, you can usually see them switch on the hackneyed razzmatazz when Archie goes on stage, forming a contrast to his hollowness and tendency to go through the motions in the family scenes which alternate these routines. Branagh’s Archie, however, has either long since burnt out that circuit or never found the switch in the first place. You can’t help but see that his belief in himself, and in music hall itself (just as it was sounding its death rattle in Britain), is entirely unfounded in either talent or personality. Whatever it is, Archie doesn’t have it. When he confesses to his daughter ‘I’m dead behind these eyes’, we already know because we can see that he’s dead in front of them as well.

Archie’s doddering yet impassioned father Billy, whose tap shoes his son believes (rightly) he can never fill, is excellently played by Gawn Grainger; Greta Scacchi as Archie’s second wife Phoebe is a world away from the glamorous roles that made her reputation, and is quite brilliant. Branagh’s now-regular director Rob Ashford overdoes it now and again, bookending the production with a symbolic prologue and coda which are both unnecessary and the sort of thing that the famously vitriolic Osborne would have fumed about.

In the most important regard, however, Ashford hits the nail squarely on the head. Osborne wrote the play in 1957, shortly after the Suez Crisis, which looms as a grim backdrop to the events on stage. He used Archie and music hall as emblems of Britain’s decline in international power and self-respect. It may seem odd to say that this production is successful because that dimension doesn’t pierce us keenly. I think, though, that whether intentionally or not, this is the point: as a nation we, too, are now collectively dead behind these eyes.

Until 12 November at the Garrick Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2: 0330-333 4811, 

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