Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Some years after its production of Look Back In Anger with Michael Sheen as Jimmy Porter, Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre now presents John Osborne's second most famous play as co-artistic director Greg Hersov directs The Entertainer.
A role famously originated on stage and film by Laurence Olivier, Archie Rice is a fading entertainer in the fading music hall and variety scene of the 1950s. His son Mick is away fighting in the Middle East in the midst of the Suez crisis, his younger son Frank has spent some time in prison but is now back home with Archie and his second wife Phoebe and grandfather Billy, and his daughter Jean has moved away to go to university and become engaged to Graham.
Jean returns after an argument with her fiancé, which we later discover is because she went on a political demonstration in Trafalgar Square. The Rice family agrees with Graham, partly because she is a woman and partly because of a sense of unquestioning nationalism in this working class household from Billy's sounding off about every subject in the newspaper to the red, white and blue lights and sets and nationalistic songs in Archie's act. Fuelled by a constant flow of gin and beer, arguments erupt about politics, family and Archie's uncaring attitude in his behaviour towards his wife and children, culminating in two tragic events.
The Royal Exchange has assembled a world-class cast of actors for the production led by David Schofield as Archie Rice. Schofield inhabits the selfish character superbly, and while he lacks just a bit of confidence in his singing and the timing is not quite there in the stand-up comedy, this will surely come very shortly in the run. As moaning, racist but loveable old Billy Rice, David Ryall's touching performance stands out firmly from an impressive acting field. Laura Rees gives a very strong performance as Jean, although she becomes a little overwrought in the second act, playing the last hour all on top note. Roberta Taylor gives a solid performance as confused drunk Phoebe and Oliver Gomm is fine as Jean's peacekeeper brother Frank. Harriet Barrow makes just two appearances as a topless Britannia in Archie's act. The recorded voices of Jean's fiancé Graham and Archie's brother Bill are provided by Gomm and the distinct, rich tones of Taylor's husband Peter Guinness.
The first act zips along at a good pace with plenty of humour, sowing the seeds of the characters' frustrations with one another, but don't be deceived by the relatively early interval as the second half is considerably longer. There are times when the production lapses into some very slow, dreary sections that plague so many Royal Exchange productions, and while the charisma of the performers just about drags us through, it it does seem very long by the end. The plot is a little clunky in parts and the play does seem dated in many ways, not least with its 'politically-incorrect' language and the politics of fifty years ago, although the latter does have some unhappy parallels in the modern world. Although the play does survive better than its more famous predecessor, it still suffers from unnaturally long speeches as the characters sound off about various subjects, emphasised in this production by standing them centre stage and dimming the lights around them.
However there is much to entertain and to deliberately provoke and frustrate an audience despite its flaws, and some social, family and political arguments that still have some relevance as well as a rare chance in this region to see such great actors as Schofield and Ryall on top form, and this alone makes the production well worth a visit.
Until 5 December 2009
Reviewer: David Chadderton