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The Entertainer

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 21 April 2008

It is genuinely surprising when a piece of theatre written 50 years ago, and at the cutting edge of drama when it was first produced, should, in an anniversary production, resonate so convincingly with the current state of the nation. Anti-war protests split families, immigration is a cause for concern, and the two leading political parties seem to merge into one. Sound familiar? This is the world of John Osborne's 1950s-set The Entertainer. Matthew Amer attended the first night at the Old Vic.

It is quite something to have Laurence Olivier suggest you are ideally suited to a part, and another thing entirely to suggest you are suited to a part he made famous. Olivier played Archie Rice in the original production of The Entertainer, staged at the Royal Court in 1957. On seeing Robert Lindsay's performance in Me And My Girl, Olivier earmarked him for the part of Rice. Two decades later, Lindsay stepped into Olivier's shoes under the gaze of the theatrical legend's widow Joan Plowright.

Having not seen Olivier's The Entertainer, I don't have the unenviable task of comparing the two. Lindsay's musical prowess comes to the fore in the cabaret numbers. At points he is almost too good to be a failure, but the jokes still fall flat, and however polished his cane and hat dance routine may be, it is still just a tired number preceding the titillation of a nude review.

At home, the scene is even bleaker. Archie's failure to achieve anything in life has left him bitter and indebted to the tax man, trying to feel success through a string of affairs. Wife Phoebe, who is never without a drink in her hand, loves Archie but is torn apart by the way he acts. Archie's once successful father sees the Britain he knew and loved eroding in front of his eyes, while his son Frank wants to get out of the country as soon as possible. Daughter Jean, who pops in unexpectedly for a weekend visit after a row with her fiancé, provides the liberal voice in the household, arguing against the war and her grandfather.

John Normington's Billy Rice is a grandfather most people can relate to. He has his forthright views, proudly sings hymns and gets tetchy when he can't read his paper. Following stardom as an entertainer he is now in an everyday rut, ritualistically changing shoes for slippers before lolling into his chair. But behind the brash views, Normington gives glimpses of the frailty of age.

In fact, all the characters have their frailty. Lindsay's Archie, though full of alcohol and bravado, shouting and arguing before breaking into song, has moments when he acknowledges that his world is crumbling around him and there is nothing he can do. The trembling of the voice, the dropping of the head; Lindsay imbues Archie with enough 'British stiff upper lip' to make the audience believe he won't let himself be helped.

Pam Ferris, as long-suffering Phoebe, comes alive in the second and third acts when, once saturated with gin, she stumbles in and out of arguments with hysterical abandon. There is a sense in all of the older characters that they know they are stuck in a world from which they cannot escape. Young Frank, played with both wide-eyed naivety and deep-set anger by David Dawson, talks of making that escape, while Emma Cunniffe's better educated, well spoken Jean thinks she can change the world, before, tragically, being drawn back into life at the Rice household.

As a play, The Entertainer is as relevant now as it has ever been. The political issues are as contemporary as anything at the Royal Court today, while the farcical image of Britannia as a nude resonates like the chimes of Big Ben. At its heart is the tale of a dysfunctional family who would rather go to bed or drink than confront issues and who are so used to entertaining that even at home – as is highlighted by Anthony Lamble's – curtain-draped set, they perform at each other rather than interacting. em>MA


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