FringeReview UK 2016
John Osborne conceived The Entertainer as a career-changing vehicle for Olivier. Kenneth Branagh concludes his term at the Garrick in Rob Ashford’s direction of Osborne’s play around the October 1956 Suez crisis. Christopher Oram’s set and costume design cleverly foregrounds domestic life with a prosc-arch backdrop and spectral turns in spot-lit numbers by Branagh. Patrick Doyle provides musical arrangements.
Kenneth Branagh concludes his term at the Garrick in John Osborne’s 1957 The Entertainer conceived as a career-changing vehicle for Oliver, someone famously once shadowed by Branagh. Rob Ashford’s direction of Osborne’s play specifically set in the weeks around the October 1956 Suez crisis shows even more strength in appearing contemporary: it resonates horribly with 2016 even if parallels can be drawn too far. Christopher Oram’s set and costume design cleverly foregrounds domestic life with a prosc-arch backdrop and spectral turns in spot-lit numbers by Branagh. Patrick Doyle provides musical arrangements.
From Gawn Granger’s first appearance as Billy Rice the class act his son Archie can’t quite follow we’re in for attacks on ‘bloody Poles’ and others, a chilling parallel with post-Brexit Britain also recently shrunk in world influence – as many point out. Granger carries the memory of greatness and it’s this elusive elixir Archie seeks, consummately but seedily played by Branagh, which stands in for those lost ideals Osborne’s first great character Jimmy Porter grasped at.
If this is a state-of-the-nation play, 1956, then specifics such as a second-rate musical-hall entertainer at the end of his peers and piers is hard to beat. Britain, Anglophile US Senator Dean Aichison pointed out had lost an empire and not found a role. Archie’s lost his Empire palaces and certainly lost his role too. Another offered to him – hotel proprietor in Canada by Bill his lawyer brother – doesn’t entice.
Branagh’s slick youthful Archie (though he’s five years older than Olivier was) is despite some mannerisms not Olivier’s, and in a sense nearer to Robert Lindsay’s whose ‘too perfect’ Archie in 2007 eschewed the broken-down second-rate song-and-dance template created with chilling effect by Oliver. Branagh’s closer to Olivier though in timbre and feel, and consummately breaks down at one point then supremely recovers poise.
Two things separate this performance from what Osborne seems to have wanted. First that modern actors can’t give themselves up to acting as so second-rate in-role . And in Branagh’s case particularly the inner teddy bear, here the slimmed down youthful Branagh isn’t just light on his feet, he’s light in his heart too, there’s no darkness. When he says there’s nothing behind the eyes, you don’t believe him. There’s a sparkle that can seduce twenty-year old girls and a believable warmth. The authentic snarl and nastiness evaporates.
Greta Scacchi as his dipsy second wife Phoebe is with Granger the stand-out of this production. One can’t imagine her slivery declines to the bottle and emotive outbursts bettered. Displaced by having little sexual appetite, little empathy with Archie’s other drives and not being the mother of Archie’s children by his first marriage yet doting on them nevertheless, Phoebe’s the exemplar of women beginning to find at this period that traditional roles might simply be sheered from them. Scacchi registers panic and fear, compassion and paper-thin comprehension. Like most of the cast she’s drunk because that’s all they have in the house. Her agony when Billy the father demolishes a cake intended for returning war hero son Mick is palpable.
Sophie McShera’s ungrateful part as daughter Jean contains with a kind of inner tremble the emotion of this idealist who discovers her politics at a Trafalgar Square rally. She promptly disowns her fiancé Graham (a brief late cameo from Phil Dunster). There’s something wrong timbrally though, and her pinched slightly mewling delivery surely isn’t what Jean inhabits though just as clearly what was asked for (it’s not McShera’s natural voice). It does though undermine Jean’s avowals of independence and in that way freights ambiguity. She rejects Graham from the opening but touchingly draws to support Phoebe after explosive reveals.
If one son’s apparently destined to come back covered in glory (more like a Union Jack) Frank has opted for six months in jail for pacifism. Jonah Hauer-King makes a good clenched fist of singing too. But the focus is on the older protagonists.
Back projections at one point, and a sequence of spot-lit dance-offs with an ensemble of dancing-girls suggest the sequences form a memory-bank as much as an alternate existence Archie immerses himself in. Their seamlessness and sudden shifts confirm the consummate speed and dispatch of this production which has its longeurs- stretched in drably-dusted small-talk Osborne didn’t hone – yet is mostly well-paced. Characters now overlap and inter-react, which they seem not to have done so fleetly judging by early reviews. The dissolution is at times almost Chekhovian, and the end ambiguous indeed. Whatever the play’s small flaws, it’s a tribute to this production that its towering significance still rings like an empty glass of Bass about to fall and shatter.
Insertion of two late characters, whether or not originally a generous nod to understudies in 1957, is a structural defect in Osborne’s masterpiece that seems little remarked-on. Rejected lover Graham and rejected brother Bill (Crispin Letts) make the best of it in an antiphonal play-off simultaneously with father and daughter. But it’s the toppling of Archie Rice’s own inner idol, or failure to do so, that sends this absorbing production out whistling into the dark.