Review: The Entertainer @ Lichfield Garrick Studio

In 1957 the left-wing Royal Court Theatre was desperate for a follow-up to John Osborne’s ground-breaking first play Look Back In Anger which had upset nearly everybody both in and out of the theatre. In the meantime Osborne himself had become a phenomenon, the original Angry Young Man so soon parodied by Galton and Simpson as Hancock and Steptoe Junior.

But Osborne was more complicated than Steptoe. A natural champagne socialist he was part of the generation made politically aware by the war, conscious that something was wrong, his views echoed by the millions of labour voters who’d poured out of the forces and who wholeheartedly welcomed the emerging welfare state. To them Britain’s imperialist involvements abroad looked increasingly dubious, culminating in the notorious Suez affair which cost us a Prime Minister and nearly involved us in another costly overseas war. So there?s an interesting parallel here 52 years on with our own perhaps unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Plus ca change.

Seen now the play seems episodic and contrived. The music hall scenes meant to evoke a more vital working class world merely hold up the action. The platitude-ridden dialogue in the family scenes, although intended to evoke the discontent and despair of a lower class so cynically made use of during Britain’s fight for victory breaks no newer ground than did Coward’s own classist portrayals of the salt of the earth as seen in This Happy Breed, Brief Encounter and In Which We Serve.

Osborne’s new-found chic meant that ironically The Entertainer’s first night audience was packed with the very targets Osborne’s withering scorn was aimed at, ‘serrated rows of sparklers, perfumed earls, belted countesses and the St. Michael mafiosi’.

And he was now so fashionable that the central character, unheroic Britain personified as failed comedian Archie Rice was played by Laurence Olivier whose Henry V had come to embody exactly what we were fighting for during the war. The avant garde had been swiftly neutralised by the establishment.

Olivier later described this role to Kenneth Tynan as “the most wonderful part that I’ve ever played”. In truth even he couldn’t afford to be out of the post-war swim, what with the National Theatre or his peerage not quite yet in the bag.

Gerry Hinks, Rob Pass, Andrew Hall, Lin Blakley, Emily Pennant-Rea and John Ashton

Gerry Hinks, Rob Pass, Andrew Hall, Lin Blakley, Emily Pennant-Rea and John Ashton

So the Garrick Rep’s production has a lot of baggage to carry. A relatively recent production at Derby tackled this by judicious cuts. Here reverence wins the day.  Similarly Archie’s final scene can be seen as a terminal meltdown. At Derby it made David Threlfall, their Archie, a TV star, landing him the role of Frank in Shameless where he now melts down in nearly every scene. John Ashton here doesn’t attempt that, seeing him as a downtrodden failure without much more than a whimper of regret, which is possibly or possibly not what Osborne meant.

Emily Pennant-Rea as his daughter Jean seems somehow to have gained her education and accent at Roedean along with an unconvincing if embryonic political conscience she hasn’t the stamina to do anything about. Rob Pass fills in as the right-sort brother while Gerry Hinks nearly steals the show as the life-like oldtimer regretting the past with no means to get a handle on the present or anything else. Grief at his demise seems somehow underplayed.

But there’s always a star, and here it’s Lin Blakley as Phoebe, Archie’s misused, bewildered wife who movingly embodies the powerlessness of ordinary people in the face of the personal and political realities of their day.

The production, directed by Andrew Hall, runs in the Garrick Studio until October 31 including Saturday matinees. For tickets priced at £15 (£10 students) phone the box office on 01543 412121 or go online at www.lichfieldgarrick.com.

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