By John Osborne
Directed by Rob Ashford
Set design by Christopher Oram
Composer – Patrick Doyle
Choreographer – Chris Bailey
The Kenneth Branagh Company
Garrick Theatre, London
Saturday 10th September 2015, 14.30
Kenneth Branagh as Archie Rice
Greta Saachi as Phoebe Rice, his second wife
Gawn Grainger as Billy Rice, Archie’s father
Sophie McShera as Jean Rice, Archie’s daughter by his first wife
Jonah Haeur-King as Frank Rice, Archie and Phoebe’s son
Crispin Letts as Brother Bill, Archie;s wealthy brother
Antony Reed (understudy) as Graham, Jean’s boyfriend
MD / piano – Benjamin Holder
Trumpet- Sam Moffirt
Bass- Nic Brakspear
Drums – James Pritchard
My copy of The Entertainer is dated in my first month at university, covered with plastic film, and has underlinings. I had forgotten that it was one of the select plays in a course on Production. The others were in pairs: Oedipus Tyrannus by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex by Jean Cocteau. The Menaechmi Twins by Plautus, The Comedy of Errors by Shakespeare; The Life of Galileo by Brecht, The Fire Raisers by Max Frisch. And The Entertainer. It must have been paired with something, and I reckon it was a Medieval mystery play, because I recall trying to work out how to get the three level Medieval stage (hell / earth / heaven) onto a modern stage. So probably Noah and his wife, because like The Entertainer, it’s stand-up. So The Entertainer was selected out in the late 60s to represent “modern British drama.”
I thought of how we looked at plays in related pairs, because in the Branagh Season, it is a companion piece to that other backstage comedy drama, Harlequinade, though Rattigan would never have been mentioned in a 60s drama course.
A.A. Gill’s comments in The Sunday Times on Kenneth Branagh on TV in Wallander are relevant: (Branagh) was briefly the keeper of the nation’s Shakespeare flame, heir apparent to the dead-eyed and feline Olivier. He played up the comparison, doing a YBA (Young British Actor) public school rugger-bugger Hank The Fifth, a Hamlet, finally jumping the shark into impersonation by playing Olivier in My Week With Marilyn, where he was not only better than Larry as the Prince in the awkwardly-mannered The Prince & The Showgirl, but was better at being Olivier on screen than Olivier ever managed. (Sunday Times Magazine, 29 May 2016 )
The Entertainer was Olivier’s most famous non-Shakespearean role, many thought the music hall comedian Archie Rice his greatest performance. It was also Osborne’s best play. Osborne mentions ‘music hall techniques’ saying they ‘cut right across the restrictions of the so-called naturalistic stage.’ (Such as Look Back In Anger, perhaps). The stage directions, while not at Shaw’s absurd length, are detailed. This is from the printed 1957 script:
Music. The latest, the loudest, the worst. A gauzed front cloth. On it are painted enormous naked young ladies, waving brightly-coloured fans and kicking out gaily. Written across it in large letters are the words “ROCK’N ROLL NEW’D LOOK.”
Kenneth Branagh as Archie Rice
The play is set in the Suez crisis of 1956. Britain and France had invaded Egypt to secure the Suez Canal from Nationalisation by Nasser. The US government completely pulled the rug from under our joint Anglo-French feet, an act of backstabbing which was quoted when the USA unsuccessfully solicited British help in the Vietnam War. It was a last colonial adventure, caused protests from the young at the time … Archie’s daughter, Jean (Sophie McShera), has been to Trafalgar Square protesting. Her brother Frank is a conscientious objector, recently out of prison. Her brother, Mike, is out there in the army. Phoebe (Greta Saatchi) is Archie’s second wife. They live with his dad, Billy Rice (Gawn Grainger) who was a star music hall turn 25 years earlier.
Archie Rice is trying to put together a new show with nudes, which was legal in 1956 as long as they didn’t move. His daughter Jean returns to visit, intending to break up with her boyfriend Graham. Graham is appalled to discover she’s protesting in Trafalgar Square. Archie is strapped for money. The play reveals Archie’s serial infidelities, that the family were supported for years by his lawyer brother, and that in the end Archie will force old Billy back on stage to make money.
Archie Rice’s famous speech is I’m dead behind these eyes. Archie says he has no feelings. He’s a permanent act. Perhaps that’s why the play was so loved by Olivier and Branagh, because we’re right into the actor as mask / you’re such a lovely audience / tears of a clown aspect. No, singers and actors don’t “mean it” every night, or maybe “any night.” The argument on Branagh v Olivier is the emotion or lack of emotion they bring to this. We both mentioned Branagh’s extraordinary facial expressions as telling half the story.
The Archie Rice stage patter was well written by Osborne. Looking at the script afterwards, I’m slightly surprised at how faithfully Branagh sticks to it. The I ‘ave a go line is real. I was told by a comedian of the era that he loved Blackpool because even if you died a death on stage, the audience all said tolerantly Well, he has a go, in contrast to Glasgow where they threw things and the hecklers had funnier lines than the comedian. The other oddity to modern ears, though entirely accurate, is Archie’s constant references to gays (in 1956 they would have said queers) in the stage patter., (hand on hip), You think I am, don’t you? Well, I’m not. But HE is. It was still going on in the late 60s, and given theatre and variety, it’s a weird kind of semi-defensive posture. In fact, Frankie Howard and Kenneth Williams utilised it non-stop.
Reviews mention relevance to Brexit in the current production. The play is intrinsically full of faded jingoism, from Billy Rice’s (Archie’s dad) ranting about Poles and Irish, references to wogs, and a nude Britannia, and chorus girls wrapped in union jacks. I think more relevant is the consequences of adventuring into Middle East situations, and the son Mike being taken prisoner (hostage?) then sent home in a box. I had to check the script on Poles and Irish. Even in 1970, signs on cheap London boarding houses said “No blacks, no Irish, no hippies.” But Poles? I’d have thought in 1956 that was an image of daredevil Spitfire pilots and The Battle of Britain. At my primary school, we had a few Hungarian kids arrive, following the abortive 1956 revolution, but no Poles.
The review ratings from various papers are listed at the foot. We both enjoyed every minute of the Kenneth Branagh Season. Again and again, we have puzzled at carping or lukewarm comments by the press. I conclude that Kenneth Branagh’s double ability, as both an actor and a director, simply stirs up jealousy or resentment, or just what the Japanese call the tall poppy syndrome … scythe the one that sticks out above the others. On The Entertainer, we have the ghost of Olivier issue. Branagh’s interpretation of Rice IS different. The production is different. Live with it and judge it on its own merits.
First, this production has four dancers and a band. It opens with Archie Rice alone, back to audience, in trousers and vest, starting to tap. As lights slowly rise, we see the four dancers begin to join in the tapping, then we have a dance routine. The dancers reappear throughout.
There were comments that (a) Branagh was too accomplished at dancing and singing (b) the dancers too svelte and good looking. I disagree. Archie Rice and his peers would all have been decent tap dancers and wouldn’t have made a living unless they could carry a song. The dancers’ costumes were perfect. My companion, who studied dance, said it may be new exercise techniques or diet, but dancers then were sturdier of thigh, and probably larger hipped and more buxom. OK, probably true, but hardly relevant sixty years on. Bodies have changed. The complaint is like suggesting that only short people can do Shakespeare because the average height was six inches lower then.
Christopher Oram’s set: L to R Archie, Billy, Frank (seated), Jean, Phoebe
Michael Billington points out that design is a problem here, in mixing the Rice family scenes in one area with the performance patter of Archie Rice, which you expect to be front of curtain. For me, Chrisopher Oram’s design was stunningly good, beyond reproach. There is a gilt proscenium arch some way back. The Rice living room is in front of this, and we have a red curtain that can fill the arch. The ceiling of the theatre is a distressed classical painting, breaking into broken lathes exposed at the edges. There are holes in this ceiling which are used later for precision spotlighting, like a sudden beam of sunshine. The sides are a jumble of dressing room paraphernalia, and the Rice home is established by an armchair, three upright chairs and a table, taken on and off by our dancers. When the Rice home is on, a backdrop of a railway poster … LNER Yorkshire Coast … drops into the space, thus giving us an image of the “coastal resort” they live in. The play script is divided into 13 numbered scenes, and an electronic board on both sides of the set displays the numbers. Oram makes perfect sense of a single space with areas. It always looks interesting, and Archie’s repeated line Don’t clap too hard – it’s a very old building works a treat (both with the stage set and the Garrick Theatre). And no, Sir Laurence didn’t do it this way.
One oddity in Osborne’s script was the very late appearance of Jean’s boyfriend Graham, and Archie’s brother Bill. Osborne could have got away without either with a touch of rewriting. However, I’m glad he didn’t.
Give me the limelight, give me the girls … a relevant line!
The initial costume choice of a black tuxedo with straw boater and cane for Archie Rice is Frankie Vaughan, and he does his cane and hat moves in the opening dance. But Frankie was always smooth, beautifully dressed and coiffeured, one hell of a singer and never told jokes on stage. I did limelights (follow spot) on Frankie Vaughan for an entire summer, two shows a night, six days a week, and the show sold out so heavily that they extended the season by two weeks. These major shows were not shabby, end of the pier theatre stuff like Archie Rice. Quite the reverse … 1750 people twice a night, six days a week. Sold out. 21,000 people a week. A ten to twelve week season.Osborne describes the location as a ‘large coastal resort’ but the railway poster backdrop correctly takes it to the likes of Scarborough or Bridlington. Archie Rice is not major summer season (Blackpool had three shows, Bournemouth, Brighton and Great Yarmouth two each, plus Torquay was the other major). Archie is Llandudno, Bridlington, Weymouth or Ventnor.
I did a novel about a summer variety show in 1967 (Music To Watch Girls By, by Dart Travis, LINKED). This is entirely fiction, and the characters are an amalgam of three years of shows with a large dose of imagination, but it has the ambience of the time.
Billy Rice (Gawn Grainger)
We were unequivocal in our enthusiasm. We had seen No Man’s Land with Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart the night before, so three theatrical knights in two days. The plays are linked by the incessant consumption of alcohol. Where this was SO much better was the set, the addition of band and dancers (you can do it without), the fact that all four lead roles get an equally good part, with the fifth, Frank getting a couple of songs too. and while I would take Pinter over Osborne nearly all the time, this is easily Osborne’s greatest work, and No Man’s Land is certainly not Pinter’s best.
Excellent casting. Several reviews pick out Gawn Grainger as “man of the match award” but I think that’s intended as a petty snipe at Branagh. Gawn Grainger replaced John Hurt who was originally cast to play it, and who features on the early posters. The thing about Osborne’s script is there are five different powerful parts. Billie Rice is a great part on the page. Gawn Grainger inhabited it and brought it out superbly. But Greta Saatchi was a perfect second-wife Phoebe, and we loved Sophie McShera (Daisy in Downton Abbey) and in spite of one review, we could hear her every word perfectly clearly. We spent a happy half hour on YouTube extracts from the 1960 film, with its dreadful Advanced RP diction and mannered over-acting. This 2016 production is so much better in every single role … I include Archie Rice. The rosy glow on Olivier in 1960 is, I suspect, not backed up by recent viewing.
To both of us, the greatest accolade must go to the part that Osborne thought of as central, that Olivier made one of his greatest roles and that this improves: Kenneth Branagh as Archie Rice.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID:
Domenic Cavendish, Telegraph ****
Paul Taylor, The Independent ****
Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times ****
Michael Billington, The Guardian ***
Maxie Szalwinska, Sunday Times ***
Michael Arditti, Sunday Express ***
Susannah Clapp, The Observer **
Michael Arditti adds “Osborne’s plays require far more sensitive direction than is offered here if they are not to descend into rants.” Bollocks, mate. It’s John Osborne. They ARE rants.
LINKED REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG
The Winter’s Tale, Kenneth Branagh Company
Harlequinade, Kenneth Branagh Company
The Painkiller, by Francis Veber, adapted Sean Foley, Kenneth Branagh Company
(as director only)
All On Her Own by Terence Rattigan, Kenneth Branagh Company 2015
Romeo and Juliet – Branagh Company, 2016
Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth