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A CurtainUp London Review
The Entertainer documents 1950s Britain as the country recovers from two world wars and is faced with another incident that looks for a period as if it might lead to a third world war. This is the Suez Crisis of 1956. John Osborne's play breaks with the English tradition of playing middle class drama in theatres with middle class patrons. In the theatre the patrons stay largely the same although the new media of television is changing all that with televised drama aimed at a different socio-economic group. "Kitchen sink" drama led by playwrights like Pinter and Wesker and Osborne is new.
In The Entertainer Archie Rice lives in cheap digs in a seaside town with his second wife Phoebe (Pam Ferris) and his father Billy (John Normington). She works in a shop, Archie is borrowing money to try to keep his variety act in business. His daughter Jean (Emma Cunniffe) is visiting from London. Phoebe and Archie's son Mick is away in the army on active service, their other son Frank lives at home and may carry on the family tradition of treading the boards. Phoebe has a problem with drinking too much and is prone to outbursts of resentment. Archie Rice is a born philanderer, a seedy flirt, a serial maker and breaker of promises to girls he wants to seduce. In a last ditch attempt to get the show an audience, Archie gets his father Billy to reprise his music hall act. Archie tells Jean that he has a twenty year old girlfriend, is planning to divorce Phoebe and marry the younger model with her parents maybe investing in his show. Phoebe has the offer of a job for both of them in Canada but Archie knows he cannot succeed there.
The construction of the play is interesting as scenes in the family home are interspersed with those of Archie's performance onstage. We get to see Archie the performer of failed gags and mediocre song and dance routines cynically talking back to the unlaughing crowd, "Let me know where you're working tomorrow and I'll come and see you!", before we see him interacting with his family. The point about Archie Rice seems to be that he fails everywhere, as a performer, as a husband, as a father. . The set has a painted curtain of glamorised topless dancers, a desperate attempt to drag in an audience that wants to see nudity. Archie mostly performs in a spotlight in front of the stage curtain but occasionally we see to the rear the bare breasted figure of Britannia. In the home, a green backdrop behind the assembled tawdry furniture seems to convey that it is always raining outside, a driving, relentless rain. We are told the play takes place in November, a more bleak time for a British coastal resort, it is hard to imagine.
This is Robert Lindsay's play. He is not afraid to perform as a man who is actually dislikable, not charismatic or charming, but selfish. Emma Cunniffe as Jean is quietly disgusted as his daughter, until after Billy's funeral, when she can contain it no longer. Pam Ferris gives a strangely overstated performance as Phoebe, drunken, knocking back neat gin and always on the edge of being embarrassing and unreasonable. It is maybe viewing this performance with twenty first century eyes used to the understatement, that it seems extreme, but it is effective nonetheless. As Archie says with superb self awareness, "We're deadbeats, down and outs, drunks . . . but we're not really funny." The raw nerves of the family are exposed when Phoebe blasts the old man, her husband's father, for eating the 30 shilling cake she has bought to welcome Mick home. John Normington is wonderful as Billy, bursting into song with the hymn "Rock of Ages". He talks about ladies, "They were ladies, ladies . . " he says with such expression of desire and admiration rolled into the slow delivery of the word ladies. David Dawson plays Frank, whose day job is stoking boilers and as his father points out, a thinner less sturdy boiler stoker you could not find. As Frank sings his satirical songs, there are hints that he might be gay. If sexuality were a matter of choice, seeing the marriage between Archie and Phoebe, who would not choose to be gay?
It is really stimulating to see such a good revival of an important landmark play. Sean Holmes has judged it to perfection. John Osborne's writing not only stands the test of time, these characters in their awful predicament endure. The programme tells us that the Rice family are based on "the rowdy, bickering Grove family on the playwright's mother's side — people who always talked but rarely listened". We are told too that Phoebe is a study of, at least partially, Osborne's loathed barmaid mother. If the play treats the decline of the music hall entertainment (remember the figure of Britannia) as a metaphor for the loss of international power and influence by Great Britain, then the 1950s are a necessary sweeping away of the old, to presage the change in thinking revolution that would be the 1960s.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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