If we extend French philosopher Roland Barthes’ quote ‘To try to write about love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is too much and too little, excessive and impoverished’ we find its dark relatable and working class poetic essence in John Osborne’s 1957 play The Entertainer.
In The Entertainer the subject of love is a love of family, a love of personal self and the joys of tax evasion and the illusion/delusion of what the country you love is becoming in everyday reality. It is about media representation of, in this early 1980s set and text updated version, an unexpected war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands and the impact that had on British society. It is about casual racism, bigotry, misogyny, homophobia and how these themes are represented in popular culture, particularly in the field of entertainment and offset by the rise of alternative comedy. It is also a journey into one man’s love hate -dead behind the eyes-relationship with himself and his family and his own growing recognition of his own failure to entertain through comedy and song in a grey and often-times hopeless 1980s Thatcherite Britain. It is still a classic piece of theatre and here it is sensibly revised and updated.
Its relatability for a contemporary audience, many of whom were around during the Falklands Crisis, and are aware of the evolution of comedy, still works remarkably well. The ‘muck of language and regions of hysteria’ combine well with the conveying of Archie Rice’s outmoded and alcohol soaked misogynistic dodgy stand up routines.
Archie Rice is played exceptionally well by Shane Richie. What is interesting, right from the off, is the genuine love and appreciative recognition and reception Richie gets from the audience even down to the big round of applause as he comes on stage to do his first routine in character. The audience are spontaneously applauding Richie, the actor/entertainer they love in 2019. This act of applauding a known modern day personality accidentally offers an illusion that we, as audience, already know and culturally appreciate old time entertainer Archie Rice. We unconsciously collude in the illusion without anyone telling us to. This is fascinating.
This 1982 version of Archie has already become part of our collective comedy consciousness within two or three minutes of him arriving on the stage within a stage. As the play progresses we see the performer Archie Rice go from old style amusing to embarrassing embittered old soak. We get to witness as voluntary voyeurs the sordid cheaply furnished apartment home life of a rapidly fading star. Shane Richie’s playing of Archie is a very difficult act to do but he pulls off all the many variances of this complex and oddly likeable character. Acting the gin soaked, Double Diamond obsessed man who, even at home is invariably pissed up and pissed off and acting the sour faced comic drunkard is a diamond of a performance amongst the murk of 1980s life.
Surrounding Richie are his second wife Phoebe (Sara Crowe) on whom he openly cheats, his old time former entertainer father Billy Rice (Pip Donaghy), anti war daughter Jean (Diana Vickers) and son Frank (Christopher Bonwell). Crowe and Vickers are especially believable and very strong in this.
All off these characters exist in their tatty apartment furnished by knackered bits and pieces from the 1960s and 1970s. All of the Rice’s are extremely fond of the booze and harbour deep resentments about their Polish neighbours and the immigrant population. Their lives are a sad mix up of impoverishment fuelled by gin and lack of a decent income and anger against the futility of their existence, yet they each have potential for hope and social improvements. This talented and rock solid small ensemble really do bring home Osborne’s critically and importantly updated script through director Sean O’Connor’s sterling direction. The dramatic moments of family hysteria are well handled by the cast particularly in the cake scene.
If in the early home-life part of the play, things, through Billy Rice’s strong opinions, all seem a bit Alf Garnett, even down to the picture of the Queen on the wall and the armchair racism, it will be no surprise that the ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ creator and scriptwriter Tony Warren was heavily influenced by Osborne’s style depicting the working class in theatre. As were many who were from working class backgrounds with important voices to be heard in the theatre.
Off stage are a live six part band mainly in support of the Archie Rice comedy routines and the play is augmented with bold type antagonistic and jingoistic projections of headlines from The Sun and other popular right wing newspapers of the day. This Made at Curve production of The Entertainer is made with warts and above all, love. It strongly deserves seeing.
The Entertainer has a short opening run at Curve until 31st August and then tours.
The Entertainer is a Made at Curve, Simon Friend and Anthology co-production.
Check out Phil Lowe’s interview with director Sean O’Connor and actor Shane Richie below.
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