Magazine article The Spectator

Mood of Decay

Magazine article The Spectator

Mood of Decay

Article excerpt

I have long thought that any play by John Osborne could easily be adapted for radio as they are notable for often dramatic monologues and even hypnotic rants. His second great play, The Entertainer, is no exception. Last week the World Service broadcast a new production (Saturday) to mark the 10th anniversary of Osborne's death, and I think the playwright would have been delighted with this version which was directed by Marion Nancarrow.

The play was originally commissioned by Laurence Olivier, who'd been impressed by Osborne's first play, Look Back in Anger, at the Royal Court. Olivier played the main character, Archie Rice, in the 1957 production and went on to recreate the role in a famous film. His performance was so powerful that actors felt inhibited from taking on the part in subsequent years. In this radio production, Bill Nighy plays Archie with the right mixture of indomitable optimism in the face of adversity and sufficient self-awareness to appreciate his plight. It is 1956 and Archie, a bad music-hall comedian and singer, is sinking, just like the variety-theatre tradition itself. At the same time the Suez fiasco is signalling the end of the British empire. The mood of decay is palpable.

'Was it all right at the theatre?' Archie is asked. 'No, it wasn't all right at the theatre. Monday night there were 60 sad little drabs in and tonight there were about 200 sad little drabs.' Archie raises a glass to celebrate 20 years of avoiding income tax while planning to leave his downtrodden wife Phoebe (Cheryl Campbell) for a 20- year-old barmaid. His father Billy (David Bradley), once a music-hall success, scotches that and tries to help Archie revive his career by appearing on stage with him. But the effort kills the old man. Meanwhile, the family has been waiting for news of Archie's soldier son Mick, who's been captured in action, but the news eventually arrives that he is dead. Thanks to Archie's wealthy brother, a lawyer, the family prepares to leave for a new life in Canada.

It is a remarkable play, bleak, depressing, in fact, and redolent of a dying age, but at the same time full of vitality thanks to Osborne's sparkling dialogue which, as with many of his plays, reflected his own conservative, uncompromising and nostalgic views. …

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