Look Back in Anger, Osborne's best-known work, is seen as the herald of a new age of British theatre. Premiered in 1956, the play took a sword to the 'hermetically sealed' drawing room drama. Out went deference, convention and the well-to-do; in came a fierce interrogation of value, an experimentation with dramatic form and a relocation to the bedsit and backstreet.
Ironic, then, that the reputation of playwrights like Rattigan, who were seen off by Osborne, should have revived in recent years, while his has continued to fall. Indeed one critic noted recently in a review that perhaps his best work is to be found in his three-volume autobiography.
How wonderful, then, to be given the chance to judge for oneself, with a major revival of The Entertainer at the Liverpool Playhouse, starring the giant-sized talent of Corin Redgrave in the title role. The new production, directed by John Tiffany, is the inaugural production in an ambitious new season of drama at the theatre. The move is further evidence of a renaissance in regional drama which is already well under way in Birmingham, Bristol and Northampton.
The cast assembled for this production, Redgrave aside, is very fine. And yet, somehow, the play takes a while to catch fire. The reason for this may lie in the set, by designer Ti Green, which is opened up to the back brick walls, creating a cavernous space dotted with bits of furniture, when perhaps something more intimate, even claustrophobic, is needed. Alternatively, it may lie in the play itself which is a paean to "the melancholy, slow withdrawing roar" of loss.
Music Hall, a glorious part of old England, is dying. Even Archie Rice's dad, himself a legendary former variety entertainer can see that. Archie, however, cannot, and he continues, with diminishing financial and artistic returns - even 'nude tableaux' (excised in this production) can't halt the slide. Paralleling this decline is the loss of England's power and influence, exemplified by the Suez crisis, which ended in humiliation for Prime Minister Eden and Britain.
The problem here is that the overwhelming result is a sense of inertia, melancholy, rather than anger. What I remember from the film of Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer is a savagery; the keynote of Redgrave's Archie Rice is, "why should I care?" The problem for the audience is, why should we? Redgrave never really convinces that he was once a great comic turn. He has the failure, the cynicism and, in one wonderful speech when he talks about the song that he heard a black woman give while he was drunk, alone, in a bar in Canada, he wrings the heart.
What this play does wonderfully well, however, is capture that sense of the drabness, defeat, despite the war, and deprivation of the 50s. Leslie Randall is only too convincing as Archie's dad, grumbling endlessly about the current state of affairs. Paola Dionisotti is terrific as the long-suffering Phoebe, Archie's wife, and the bitterness that spills out as she drinks coruscates.
The play reminded me strongly of Waiting for Godot, in that it is haunted by absence. In The Entertainer, the absence is that of Mick, Archie's other son, who gone to Suez with the British Army. Like Godot, his presence could bring meaning to an otherwise meaningless existence. Godot never arrives, Mick does, but in a coffin, after being shot by the Egyptian army forces.
I made a round trip of more than 350 miles to see this production and I was glad that I did. It is, I think, an important play still and Corin Redgrave gives a fine performance with moments which will live long in the memory. The ending, with Archie and his wife joining hands before walking out from the theatre into the rain, offered a glimpse of reconciliation and hope absent in last year's revival at the Derby Playhouse. Cavils aside, however, this production is to be warmly applauded, as indeed it was, and I would urge anyone to make a beeline for the box office.
Reviewer: Pete Wood