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Life is a shabby cabaret in The Entertainer, Kenneth Branagh’s latest West End star vehicle. Set in a crumbling English seaside town, this scathing state-of-the-nation sermon by the pioneering kitchen-sink dramatist John Osborne was first staged in 1957. It centers on Archie Rice, a fifty-something song-and-dance man scraping a thin living in the dying world of music hall, which serves as a potent allegory for post-war Britain in imperial decline. The final production in Branagh and company’s year-long West End residency runs through mid-November, with a live cinema broadcast scheduled for Oct. 27.
By stepping into the big shoes of Laurence Olivier, who originated the role on stage and screen almost 60 years ago, Branagh inevitably invites unflattering comparisons with the acting titan whose career he has often seemed to be shadowing. Peppered with lively tap-dancing numbers, the 55-year-old star’s athletic performance is impressive, but feels tonally wrong. More importantly, while Branagh has aged gracefully, the play has not. Director Rob Ashford’s respectful production is a two-hours-plus marathon of windy, boozy, hectoring self-pity that struggles to engage on an emotional level.
A politically and socially charged study of a middle-aged mediocrity unraveling under the weight of his own failures, The Entertainer might be seen as a British cousin to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Indeed, Miller himself was instrumental in persuading Olivier to revise his low opinion of Osborne, whose groundbreaking “angry young man” drama Look Back in Anger had irritated the haughty theatrical knight. Lobbying to play Archie proved a very shrewd decision, rejuvenating Olivier’s career and reputation.
The Entertainer takes place against the political backdrop of the Suez Crisis, a humiliating military debacle that signaled the last gasp of British colonialism in the Middle East. This shameful episode was still raw when the play was first staged in London, but it feels remote now. Despite some juicy parallels with Britain’s current agonies concerning ill-advised foreign wars and mass immigration, Branagh and Ashford leave the subtext to speak for itself in a production that favors period accuracy over contemporary resonance.
A serial womanizer and deadbeat dad who proudly boasts about his criminal track record of not paying income tax, Archie lives with his downtrodden second wife Phoebe (Greta Scacchi) and cantankerous father Bill (Gawn Grainger, a late addition to the cast after John Hurt pulled out for health reasons). A veteran vaudeville performer from a more innocent era, Bill is largely spared Osborne’s skewering disdain, though his proudly patriotic rants against immigrants were deeply reactionary even half a century ago. Today, the play’s smattering of racist epithets has extra shock value, especially in the mouths of ostensibly more liberal and self-aware characters.
Osborne’s casual misogyny also grates on modern ears. Admittedly Ashford has attempted to tease out some quasi-feminist undertones, foregrounding Phoebe as a long-suffering victim of infidelity and class snobbery, and lending extra focus to Archie’s eldest daughter Jean (Sophie McShera), a brittle idealist who attends anti-war protests in London. Sadly, both Scacchi and McShera give bleating, blaring, one-note performances that invite little empathy.
In the right hands, Archie Rice is an almost Shakespearean antihero, a hollow man numbing the pain of his slow spiritual death with booze, rose-tinted nostalgia and wisecracking comedy. Building on Olivier’s definitive blueprint, he also has been portrayed on stage, screen and radio by Michael Gambon, Jack Lemmon, Bill Nighy and others. The most recent West End revival before this, at the Old Vic in 2007, earned Robert Lindsay rave reviews.
Measured against Olivier’s seedy magnetism and Lindsay’s muscular brio, Branagh’s performance inevitably lacks depth. His comic zingers, like his attempts at pathos, feel studied and forced. Still boyish and trim, with lithe dancing skills to the fore, he never convinces as a midlife mediocrity sinking into a swamp of boozy self-loathing.
At one point in this production Archie tap-dances the Morse Code for “SOS,” hinting at the quiet desperation behind his relentless comic patter. A more ambitious modern revival might have delved further into his alcoholism and depression issues. But Branagh simply comes across as way too healthy for the role, with a hint of Eddie Izzard in his perpetually mischievous smirk.
In fairness, Ashford’s production does have some saving graces. Christopher Oram’s bold set design, a decaying theater stage tilted back at a slight angle from the Garrick’s own proscenium arch, is handsome and versatile. Patrick Doyle’s snappy musical numbers, deflating stuffy patriotic pomp with bawdy humor, combine Joan Littlewood’s satirical pageantry with the ironic good cheer of Brecht and Weill. And for all his limitations, Branagh’s energized showmanship cannot be faulted, especially after a solid year of co-directing and acting in this busy season.
But no amount of inventive staging can overcome the key flaw in Ashford’s production, which is Osborne’s underlying text, a misanthropic, rambling and ultimately incoherent rant against a Cruel Britannia that no longer exists, and maybe never did. Sixty years ago, all these anguished end-of-empire elegies doubtless packed real emotional and political punch. Today they just feel, quite literally, like First World Problems.
Venue: Garrick Theatre, London
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Greta Scacchi, Gawn Grainger, Sophie McShera, Phil Dunster, Jonah Hauer-King
Director: Rob Ashford
Playwright: John Osborne
Set and costume designer: Christopher Oram
Music: Patrick Doyle
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Sound designer: Christopher Shutt
Choreographer: Chris Bailey
Presented by Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company
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