‘I’ve never known anyone in my life who was so easily wounded’, wrote novelist Doris Lessing about Playwright and occasional actor John Osborne. Like a 1950’s version of Morrissey, Osborne was bitter, resentful and had a tendency to nurse grudges, sometimes for years. Look Back in Anger is his most famous play but unsympathetic lead character, Jimmy Porter (a stand-in for Osborne) is little more than an educated bully, scapegoating his wife for his own failure and unhappiness. Damn you England, a published collection of Osborne’s journalism, takes its title from an ‘open letter to my fellow countrymen’ published in 1961; read today, this polemical piece seems like the product of a raging narcissist. The writer’s cruel comments about 4th wife Jill Bennett – who committed suicide – are too appalling to reprint here. Yes, he was broken, with an ingrained need to lash out, which can perhaps be traced back to his relationship with his cold and abusive mother, Nellie (Osborne didn’t speak to her for 7 years and refused to attend her funeral).
Many of Osborne’s plays have aged badly, and it’s difficult to view them with detachment, given his psychology (his flair for vivid, rhythmic dialogue will always endure). That said, there will always be a place in the theatre canon for The Entertainer: here, Osborne successfully channeled his rage onto a wider canvas, to examine national identity and a country in crisis. Did somebody say Brexit? This touring co-production – from Anthology Theatre, Simon Friend and Curve in Leicester – couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune juncture.
Osborne set his play against the backdrop of the 1956 Suez crisis: Director Sean O’Connor has moved this production forward to 1982, and the Falklands War. Archie Rice (Shane Ritchie) is a comedian from the old school, a sort of cross between Freddie Starr and Bernard Manning (new, non-PC material has been added to reflect the time shift). His theme song is ‘Born with a Smile on My Face.’ Rice’s father Billy (Pip Donaghy) is another comedian, long retired, and worried about the number of immigrants moving into the area. As his soldier son sails with the Task Force to liberate the Falklands, Archie’s daughter Jean returns from campaigning against the war, and the policies of Margaret Thatcher. With the alternative comedians snapping at his heels, Archie is forced to confront the fact he is out of sync with the modern world. Plus, his son is reported missing in action and second wife Phoebe is coming apart at the seams. When he is offered the chance of a new life in Canada, Archie is forced to make some agonising personal decisions.
Shane Richie’s reputation as an ‘all-rounder’ means he doesn’t get enough credit as an actor. The character of Archie fits him like a glove; he gives a fantastic, 100 watt performance, never still, always twitching with eager-to-please energy. Archie isn’t particularly nice, but up-front with his failings (he makes no effort to hide his numerous sexual affairs). By the end however, Richie has introduced something unexpected – grief. His final, shambolic monologue, is a brilliantly controlled battle between the desire to entertain, and the need to confront years of repressed feelings.
Pip Donaghy is one of those reliable jobbing actors who has been around for decades, isn’t famous but always gives 100% (and he was in the original Royal Court production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, so deserves big respect). At this performance, Sara Crow was unable to perform so understudy Alice Osmanski stepped in as Phoebe; though too young for the role, she was never less than impressive, a bundle of barely contained vulnerability, mindful that her husband could abandon her at any moment.
Christopher Bonwell is a solid presence as Archie’s second son, Frank. Singer/actress Diana Vickers (who enjoyed a big hit with the catchy Once) has some good bits as Jean but spends most of the first act stuck in a chair, more of a sports referee than a dramatic participant.
This highlights one of the failings of this production. It’s great that O’Connor has tried to make The Entertainer relevant for modern audiences but at times, it feels like we’ve gone back to 1956. The claustrophobic, old-fashioned living room set means the actors have little space for manoeuvre: There’s a picture of the Queen on one wall plus ‘The Woman with the Green Face’ on another. The use of smooth 80’s pop (OMD, the Associates) clashes with the inclusion of old cockney sing-song numbers (Knees up Mother Brown, Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty). And much as I love the Opera House, I couldn’t help thinking how much more powerful this show would be in a more intimate venue. There are times – particularly during Archie and Jean’s second act row – when this large, Georgian space works against the drama, and the various strands of long-germinating conflict.
On the whole, The Entertainer is a bit of a mixed bag. But see it for Richie, if nothing else: he delivers one of the best performances of the year.★ ★ ★
The Entertainer is at the Opera House, Manchester from 28 October to 2 November 2019.