John Osborne’s “The Entertainer” first opened to audiences in 1957 and has been revived a number of times since. This latest production re-imagined by director Sean O’Connor takes the setting forward to 1982 in the midst of the Falklands war and political unrest with Thatcher at the helm. It is very much a snapshot of an era; drenched in gin and reeking with an expected misogyny and racism that is designed to unsettle some audience members. Pop culture references are littered throughout with various sound bites that enhance the nostalgia factor for those who lived through the 80s, but have the potential to be lost on anyone younger.
Shane Richie is thoroughly convincing in his portrayal of washed-up comedian Archie Rice. His years of experience in variety performance have served him well in this role, and his faultless comic timing encouraged laughter from the audience even when the stale jokes were intended to fall flat. His singing voice is surprisingly good too, and his rendition of “Those Were The Days” is exceptionally delivered with power and emotion. Ultimately Richie takes you on a journey of laughing with Archie at the start, to truly despising him, to feeling downright sorry for him by the show’s end in what is a bleak and wretched story of failure.
Archie’s long-suffering family are his wife Phoebe (Sara Crowe), father Billy (Pip Donaghy), and grown-up children Jean (Diana Vickers) and Frank (Christopher Bonwell). Most of the play takes place within the family’s living room where gin is forever flowing and arguments are constant. The overriding family tragedy is that of Mick; the third of Archie’s children who is caught up in the Falkland’s conflict, but that is just one of the many catalysts of upset within the flat.
Donaghy steals the show with his characterisation of bigoted but lovable granddad. His lines come a little too fast at times, but he manages to be one of the only endearing characters on stage; particularly down to his loving relationship with granddaughter Jean, with whom he shares an emotional and resonant farewell toward the end of the show. Jean herself is feisty and militant, often escalating the arguments with her father who seems to relish in being awful to her. Vickers hits the peaks and valleys of Jean’s emotions believably which presents a pleasant contrast to her father’s refusal to feel. She is the oft-ignored voice of reason throughout the piece, and her frustration translates well to the audience. Phoebe is her opposite, and the pair rarely see eye-to-eye. Phoebe is downtrodden and pathetic after years of being pushed aside by Archie and being the butt of his hideous jokes on stage. Perpetually drunk and sad, Crowe doesn’t get much opportunity to flex her range, but she pulls through some powerful moments as Phoebe begins to lose her grip on normality. Frank is the least fleshed-out character in the play, with little opportunity to shine against the rest of the family. He is just there; seemingly complicit in his father’s affair and reluctant to take sides in any argument.
The Entertainer is certainly no light-hearted romp, but its comic and more heartfelt moments balance the overarching tragedy well. It is a relevant piece; as the original 1957 version has been transplanted to 1982, so too could this translate to 2019 where times are once again as hard for performers as they are for politicians. Does it provide any answers? No. But there is relatability in every character and situation, with some hard familial truths to tell. The star-studded cast will certainly pull in an audience, and hopefully they will stay for the well-executed kitchen sink realism.
The Entertainer plays at the Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury until the 23rd of November and the tour continues in London the following week.