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Kenneth Branagh season: The Entertainer

First Published 31 August 2016, Last Updated 30 May 2018

What’s it all about?

The Entertainer tells the story of Archie Rice, a middle-aged music hall performer whose audiences are getting smaller by the night. Set over a series of evenings in 1956, the play follows Archie and his family as they struggle to come to terms with a changing Britain.

Who’s in it?

Kenneth Branagh has star billing in the finale of his season at the Garrick, playing the role of Archie Rice. Branagh cuts a fine figure in his suit and natty boater hat, mincing about the stage with glee and a twinkle in his eye. He upholds the persona of the eternal showman at home with his family, delivering wisecrack after wisecrack, barely drawing breath. Despite repeatedly asserting that he doesn’t care about anything, his moments of reminiscence are spellbinding, inexplicably leading the audience to empathise with a man who is selfish, crude and casually cruel to those around him.

Greta Scacchi gives a heart-rending performance as Archie’s beleaguered wife, Phoebe. Osborne’s script offers a myriad of emotions for her to contend with, and Scacchi expresses each of them with touching sensitivity. Frustrated with the lack of opportunity life has afforded her, she must reconcile the anger and humiliation of her life with Archie with her commitment and love for her family. Gin in hand, she stumbles about the stage, distracted and barely conscious of those around her, caught up in her own memory, pain and regret.

Gawn Grainger is delightful as Archie’s father and retired showman, Billy. Truculent and casually racist, he offers a believable portrayal of a man of the early 20th century, yearning for the good old days, when everyone wore hats and had respect, all the while rolling his ‘r’s with great aplomb.

What should I look out for?

Chris Bailey’s striking choreography: the dance numbers are in turns hypnotic, elegant, seedy and violent. The use of tap is understated but highly effective: Archie’s tendency to shuffle and pick up his feet at key moments appears less of a tick and more an externalisation of his emotions.

Christopher Oram’s stunning set: the velvet red curtains lift to reveal the proscenium arch of a music hall, complete with fading gilt and peeling frescos, broken props left abandoned in the wings. The chorus girls bring on furniture for the domestic scenes, adding a further layer of metatheatricality to the production, for everything becomes a performance, even in the Rice home. Their coats are hung on a costume rail, and Archie constantly wears his tap shoes, as if waiting for the opportune moment to break into a skit.

Branagh’s Act Two monologue about the reality of life as a performer. For the first time, we see Archie without façade or pretence, at his most honest and most vulnerable. The effect is chilling as he baldly states that he is “dead behind the eyes”.

In a nutshell?

Branagh shines in this biting depiction of the end of empire

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Will I like it?

The Entertainer straddles a range of complex issues: the changing face of British culture and the decline of the music hall, adultery, ambition, youth, class and, crucially, the Suez Crisis and end of the British Empire. An air of disquiet hangs over the play; nothing is quite right and the Rice family turn to alcohol to drown out the sensation that everything is crumbling around them. While Billy clings on to his image of a truly great Britain, the younger generation challenge these values and Archie sings Number One’s The Only One For Me, complete with Britannia, bayonets and naked women in a horrifying spectacle of jingoistic euphoria. The effect is unsettling, and intentionally so. Thus, even though the play is firmly fixed in space and time, it offers an uncomfortable number of reflections on Britain today and our attitudes to immigration, social class and foreign affairs.
Charged with a number of stand-out performances, this brutal production may not leave you smiling, but will certainly leave you with food for thought.

The Entertainer runs at the Garrick Theatre until 12 November. You can book tickets through us here.


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