Updated: Jan 15, 2020
Anthology Theatre, Simon Friend and Curve
Opera House, Manchester
28 October 2019 - 2 November 2019; 2hr 20min
With most Greater Manchester producing houses cutting down drastically on straight plays these days it’s to the touring venues we often have to go for drama.
This production of one of the landmark plays of the latter half of the 20th century makes a welcome addition to the autumn season. With a headlining performance from Shane Richie and subject matter that takes on a new resonance as Britain twists and turns through its current political and identity crisis, it is an interesting and quite demanding evening.
Osborne set The Entertainer against the backdrop of the 1956 Suez Crisis, using the dysfunctional family of fading variety theatre funny man Archie Rice as a metaphor for a Britain that was questioning its place in the world, not much liking the answers and finding it difficult to agree a way forward.
Director Sean O’Connor has moved the setting forward a quarter century, to the Falklands war, and it brings a greater immediacy and focus, using an era much closer for present-day audiences.
There are infamous headlines from The Sun and snatches of Thatcher’s speeches, as well as the sort of satire from Not The Nine O’Clock News that was sounding the death knell for Archie’s career. There’s even a turn from Richie as Thatcher.
Rice is an old-fashioned stand-up who finds his stock-in-trade of racism and sexism no longer acceptable and is having to face the bleak reality of a future with no obvious direction, washed up and outdated. He and his family are preparing for the return home from the forces of son Michael when they receive the devastating news of Michael’s death. To distract himself and his elderly father – also a former comedian – Archie launches into preparing a new show. When his brother invites the whole family to make a fresh start with him in Canada he keeps rejecting it. Does he finally go off into a new future? I wasn’t sure what O’Connor had decided here.
Richie is ideally qualified for this role as, pre-EastEnders, his career was very much on the variety side as a comedian and TV game show host (among much else), some of it just across the road from the Opera House at the old Granada TV Studios. He is totally believable delivering the gross comedy and the drama too, absolutely dislikeable but vulnerable, drawing the audience in and holding us there whether we like it or not.
Sara Crowe’s ever-suffering wife and Pip Donaghy as dad Billy lead the rest of the gin, beer and Dubonnet-sozzled family.
The play itself is showing its age. It is very heavy-handed agit-prop in places and the domestic scenes drag on and on. But at its best – and this updated production with its projections and ultra flag-waving jingoism does neatly underline the best bits – it is a devastating undermining of Little England.
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