Review: Shane Richie shines as The Entertainer on Coventry stage
Nick Le Mesurier reviews The Entertainer at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
Perhaps better than any other play of its time, The Entertainer, by John Osborne, nailed the atmosphere that hung around Britain in the 1950s when its imperial power was in sharp decline.
The Suez crisis, in which Britain tried to engineer a conflict in the middle-east, failed and brought shame upon the nation. The Establishment was shown to be seriously wanting in judgment and honour. It helped pave the way for the revolutionary ideas of the '60s, and is simply one of the best plays of the 20th century, for its perspicacity, its savage denouncement of post-colonial pretensions, its tragedy and its brilliant characterisation.
The plot revolves around Archie Rice’s attempts to maintain his flagging career as a music hall comedian, and the effect this has on his long suffering family. This production, on tour till the end of November, sees the action transposed to the early 1980s, a time when the British lion roared (perhaps for the last time) at the Argentinians who had invaded the Falkland Islands way down in the South Atlantic. Britain then was under the management of a very different leader, and the politics of the day were rough, much rougher than anything we see now. Margaret Thatcher was in command, and many would say the war came at an opportune moment to revive her flagging fortunes and Britain’s sense of itself as a world power.
Does it work? Yes and no. The Entertainer is a great play, and this production is fantastic. Shane Ritchie delivers a masterful performance as Archie Rice, a man desperately trying to keep his pride alive while the world around him moves on. His is a brilliantly complex character: dynamic, self-pitying, stubborn, arrogant, and selfish, a blatant philanderer, undeniably charismatic. Many great actors have played the part, including Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. Ritchie can stand proudly beside them. He is more than ably supported by a cast, each of whom could take a leading role and run with it. Special mention must be made of Alice Osmanski, who understudied the role of Phoebe Rice, Archie’s poor abused wife who desperately seeks solace in alcohol yet stands proudly by her man till the very end. She stepped into the role magnificently. The show is a thrilling experience, and it got a standing ovation from the audience
I have my doubts about the transposition in time. The play now, as then, sends up imperial pretensions, and the political issues before us at the moment expose these for all to see. To the audience, many of whom were old enough to remember the 80s, and some the late 50s when the original play was set, it might have brought back memories. Many laughed at Archie’s awful, sexist, jokes, though whether they did so because they thought them genuinely funny or whether they were laughing at the irony of a man so blatantly out of step with the our current times is a moot point. But there were some in the audience who were much younger, who to judge by conversations overheard, have little sense of the 1980s, let alone the 1950s. For them I suspect, the sheer force of the drama between the characters would have given them a wonderful night’s theatre. But the depth of Osborne’s genius for nailing the mood of the times might have passed them by.
* The Entertainer runs until Saturday October 19. Visit belgrade.co.uk to book.