Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: The Entertaininer; the Roundabout

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: The Entertaininer; the Roundabout

Article excerpt

Kenneth Branagh's obsession with Larry Olivier's career is becoming such a bizarre act of theatrical necromancy that it deserves to be turned into a drama. Sir Ken and Lord Olivier could be played by the same actor. The Entertainer , written for Larry in 1956 by John Osborne, presents us with a washed-up music-hall star, Archie Rice, who is supposed to symbolise Britain's post-colonial decline.

This version, directed by Rob Ashford, opens with a tap-dancing routine so ponderously executed that it leaves one wondering if Branagh is a lousy hoofer trying too hard, or a master of the art impersonating a lesser practitioner. This difficulty permeates the piece. By making the central character a useless comic, Osborne has sabotaged the play as an act of entertainment. If the lead performer can deliver a bad gag ineptly and garner a few reluctant titters from a bored audience he has, amazingly, fulfilled the highest demands of the script. Big-hearted Branagh is a natural charmer and he brings some real human sparkle to the seedy, superficial role created by the dyspeptic Osborne. Archie Rice is a junkshop of masculine frailties: a fast-talking, hard-drinking, tax-dodging, wife-discarding, narcissistic, loudmouthed wide boy whose sole redeeming quality is his bonhomie.

Osborne's great skill, bilious rhetoric, is the aptitude of the orator rather than the dramatist. His characters are animated by suffering, or by self-pity to be precise, but they never seem to grow or change. A good dramatic personality, like a good pie, emerges from the furnace in a radically altered state. But not Archie. The plot presents him with three problems -- tax arrears, a needy mistress and a son in danger overseas -- and they all develop in foreseeable ways. When he receives news of his bereavement, Archie responds by performing a blues number for his family's delectation. Is that meant to be poignant? It seems tactless and self-regarding. After the funeral, he returns home in a mood of mustn't-grumble chirpiness as if he'd just wasted a shilling on a disappointing Victor Mature flick at the Odeon. He can never develop as a human being. He's too busy jabbering.

Ditto the supporting cast of numpties. Gawn Grainger plays Archie's dad as Archie with the volume turned down. Greta Scacchi gamely impersonates Archie's gin-sozzled, pea-brained wife fussing and wittering around the table like an upright dishcloth miraculously granted the powers of speech (but not of thought).

When it first appeared, the play was hailed as prophetic. …

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