facebook play-alt chevron-thin-right chevron-thin-left cancel location info chevron-thin-down star-full help-with-circle calendar images mail whatsapp directions_car directions_bike train directions_walk directions_bus close spinner11
Are you missing theatre as much as we are? Support us now with Theatre Tokens and see your favourite shows when they reopen. #IMissTheatre

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

Share

Sign up

Related articles

If you click through to seat selection (where you'll see either best available or a seating plan), you will be seeing the most up-to-date prices. If this differs from what we've written on the calendar, please bear with us, as those prices will update soon.

We now sell our famous TKTS Booth discounts online here at Official London Theatre.

We are now cancelling all performances up until and including 31 May 2020 to help us process existing bookings whilst we wait for further clarity from the government in terms of when we will be able to reopen.

We are so sorry that in these testing and difficult times you are not able to enjoy the show you have booked for and hope the following helps clarify next steps in respect of your tickets .

There is nothing that you need to do if your performance has been cancelled, but we do ask for your patience.

If you have booked directly with the theatre or show website for an affected performance, please be assured that they will contact you directly to arrange an exchange for a later date, a credit note/voucher or a refund. If you have booked via a ticket agent they will also be in contact with you directly.

We are processing in strict date order of performance, so you are likely to be contacted after the date you were due to go to the theatre. However, we want to reassure you that you will be contacted, and your order will be processed, but please do bear with us.

We’d like to thank everyone who has been patient and kind in dealing with their ticket providers so far and we are sorry that we cannot process your order as quickly as we would like.

Please do not contact your credit card company as that will slow the process down and put an additional burden on our box office and ticket agent teams.

In order for us to serve our audiences the best we can, please do not get in touch with your point of sale if you have booked for performances after 31 May. Please be reassured that if we have to cancel future performances you will be directly contacted by your theatre or ticket provider. Our producers continue to plan for all eventualities dependent on the individual needs of their shows and we will provide further updates on specific shows as and when they become available.

We look forward to welcoming you back into our theatres as soon as we are allowed to resume performances. In the meantime stay safe and healthy.

While theatres are currently closed, various venues and productions are making announcements for their individual shows, including cancellations and rescheduled performances. Please check with the individual shows for details.