The Entertainer

John Osborne
Anthology Theatre, Simon Friend Entertainment and Curve
Opera House, Manchester

Shane Richie as Archie Rice Credit: Helen Murray
Pip Donaghy (Billy Rice) Credit: Helen Murray
Diana Vickers as Jean Rice Credit: Helen Murray
Christopher Bonwell as Frank Rice Credit: Helen Murray
Sara Crowe (Phoebe Rice) Diana Vickers (Jean Rice) Credit: Helen Murray
Pip Donaghy (Billy Rice), Shane Richie (Archie Rice) Credit: Helen Murray
Pip Donaghy (Billy), Diana Vickers (Jean), Christopher Bonwell (Frank) Credit: Helen Murray
Shane Richie as Archie Rice Credit: Helen Murray

The programme for Sean O'Connor's adapted revival of Osborne's pseudo-Brechtian follow-up to his hit debut play Look Back In Anger quotes that earlier play's champion Kenneth Tynan's comment in April 1957 that he had managed to put "the whole of contemporary England on to one and the same stage" but misses his comment later in the same review that "he has bitten off, in this broad new subject, rather more than he can maul."

The play was set contemporary to its original production when the traditional music hall comics like Archie Rice and his retired comic father were quickly going out of fashion and the swiftly diminishing British Empire was being tested in the Middle East with the disaster at Suez. O'Connor has brought it a bit more up-to-date but not to present day, as you might expect if he is trying to make it seem as current as it did to those original Royal Court audiences, but to the 1980s, simply replacing one historical backdrop with another.

So the setting of the seaside home of the Rice family (no designer is credited) looks like it was last decorated in the 1970s, Archie is the kind of club comic we used to see on The Comedians on TV in the '70s, the threat is from the 'alternative comedy' of the young '80s anti-racist, anti-sexist, left-wing comedians (we get a short audio extract from a famous Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch between scenes) and Mick is fighting in the Falklands Conflict. There are lots of tweaks to the script to accommodate this, but largely it remains the same.

Tynan referred to Archie Rice as "one of the great acting parts of our age" and he saw it played by one of the greatest actors, Laurence Olivier, who until he played that part had been written off by the younger breed of working-class actors as old-fashioned—too old fashioned for the young, trendy Royal Court anyway. Here, he is given a very different but completely believable treatment by comedian and actor Shane Ritchie, who, rather bravely, stands in front of people who may be fans of his own stand-up and does that job badly, or at least half-heartedly. Rice isn't bad at what he does, but he is intelligent enough to know that he may not be doing it for much longer.

Back at home, Archie's daughter Jean (Diana Vickers) has returned sooner than expected after breaking off her engagement to Graham (who is cut from this version of the play). Billie (Pip Donaghy) rails about the blacks and the Poles and is shocked that his beloved granddaughter had joined the protests in Trafalgar Square against sending troops to the Falklands and against the Thatcher government, but her political fervour seems to have been short-lived. Once her stepmother Phoebe (played, unannounced as far as I'm aware, by understudy Alice Osmanski) arrives, the gin starts flowing, and never stops until the end.

Most of the play consists of drinking and family arguments, interspersed with Archie's increasingly desperate stand-up routines and the occasional speech to the audience from other characters, which all happens a little too smoothly to make much of an impression of the change in mode. Tynan's best line, understandably not reproduced in the publicity, is, when he observes that there is little connection between the family members, "you cannot persuade an audience that people are related simply by making them call each other bastards."

The updating is a little odd as, though the comparison between Suez and the Falklands and between the changes in comedy in the '50s and the '80s make an interesting essay question, it doesn't make it more relatable to a 21st-century audience to switch it from 60 to 30 years ago when the original was about major political events the year before. Some of the changes in language and references work, but some don't: Archie has switched his favoured beer from draught Bass, which I remember was around in the '80s, to Double Diamond, which was well past its heyday by then; Billy's complaint that no one wears hats now like in his youth is still there, but this Billy's youth would have been around the time that Osborne's Billy was making the same complaint.

Cutting Graham and Archie's successful brother Bill from a scene near the end weakens the messages that those two characters deliver, even with some of their lines reallocated to other characters.

There are, however, some very good performances. Donaghy is the old reactionary but still bright and lovable in his own way. Osmanski may look a little young for the part (she is also understudy for Jean) but is totally convincing as Archie's put-upon current wife. Vickers comes across well as the sensible voice, reacting to the chaos around her, but she never cares enough to change anything. Christopher Bonwell as young Frank Rice isn't given much to go on with his character so is left to react to everything in an exasperated way most of the time.

But Ritchie holds it all together with a barnstorming performance, holding an audience as a comic but finding it hard not to show his contempt for them and finally breaking down in front of them in his final song. Between this, he behaves badly to all of his family, especially his wife, and makes a show of not caring, but the ending suggests that maybe this is all a front.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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