It's taken 47 years but at last Derby has paid tribute to John Osborne. He and Alan Bates were members of the original repertory company in the gritty, industrial Midlands town and Osborne actually offered the Playhouse Look Back In Anger only to have it rejected. Osborne went on to receive the Evening Standard Drama Award as the most promising playwright of the year for Look Back. It's unclear whether Derby was too red-faced to put on Osborne's works subsequently after turning down the play considered by many to be the turning point in post-war British theatre. Now the Playhouse has put that right.
Osborne was said to have visited Derbyshire theatres and observed music-hall performers to get inspiration for The Entertainer. It was the work which established him as a playwright of huge importance. That's because Archie Rice, the central character, is a much more profound, complicated character than Look Back's Jimmy Porter who is perceived merely as an angry, rebellious young man.
Another reason for staging The Entertainer nowadays is that any actor attempting the Archie role doesn't have to face the ghost of Lawrence Olivier. He commissioned Osborne to write the play because he was so impressed with Look Back. He gave such a stunning performance that for many years no one dared to take it on because of the inevitable comparison it would have generated.
The Entertainer is set in 1956. Director David Freeman uses Pathe News footage of the Suez crisis to convey a sense of what was happening at that time as Britain's status as a colonial power was in rapid decline. In the same way music hall was degenerating into a stale, tacky, outmoded entertainment form which attracted barely half-empty audiences in the face of competition from variety shows and popular music.
Tom Phillips' set revolves to alternate between the Empire Theatre where Archie performs his act and the Rices' living room. At the back is a huge brick wall, symbolising Archie's struggle against the inevitable disappearance of everything he holds dear in his life.
David Threlfall gives a masterful performance as Archie. In the music hall he is almost excruciatingly bad, leaving you in no doubt why the genre's popularity was on the wane. His act contains well-trotted-out gags, embarrassing put-downs and routines which make you cringe. You feel sorry for him because he mistakenly believes there is still a future for his act.
When he is with his family, Threlfall is just as credible as the unfaithful husband with a penchant for young women who puts a brave face on his money problems and his inability to convey his true feelings about his relatives. In the scene where he becomes progressively more drunk, he's so convincing you believe it's real alcohol on the table.
Anna Keaveney gives a marvellous performance as downtrodden, garrulous wife Phoebe who has to put up with Archie's philandering ways. Her misplaced loyalty and her duty to support her husband despite his many faults are touching and tender.
There's strong support from Anna Tolputt and Dominic Charles-Rouse who play Archie's children, while Robert David MacDonald (Archie's dad Billy) superbly captures the mannerisms and speech of an old man although his voice occasionally drops and the ends of lines become indistinct.
The Entertainer has lost the contemporary edge it had when it was first produced. But its biting satire and clever observation of the pains of family life are just as poignant and relevant now as when the five-times married Osborne wrote them. This production was certainly worth the long wait.
"The Entertainer" runs until May 24th
Reviewer: Steve Orme