London theatre trip (3): John Osborne: The Entertainer, Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company / Garrick Theatre, London (Director: Rob Ashford)
By Sascha Krieger
Perhaps this should be the play of the hour. In The Entertainer, John Osborne used the decline of the music hall tradition as a metaphor for the fall of the British Empire and the deep identity crisis the country found itself in. The parallels to post-Brexit Britain are uncanny, down to the title character’s father’s xenophobic rants against the „Irish and Poles“, yes, Poles. However, Rob Ashford’s production is firmly rooted in the past, it is a memory that is aware of its already being gone. Christopher Oram’s magnificent stage design depicts a crumbled theatre stage, once magnificent but now seriously run-down. A stage inhabited by shadows of faintly recalled memories. Who are brought to life in thee form of the Rice family: father and son, both music hall entertainers, the second wife, a 1950s woman trapped in the housewife culture not even dead today, two grown children, politically conscious, the son a good-natured seeker of common ground, the daughter an indignated yet insecure would-be revolutionary. They are thoughts of the past as they sit in their ancient furniture among the remains of long-gone mass entertainment.
Ashford intricately interweaves the public and the private: repeatedly private rows stop mid-scene to give way to a music hall routine with father Archie dancing and singing through his frozen family. This Archie, brilliantly portrayed by Kenneth Branagh, is an entertainer through and through who cannot stop performing even at home. All is facade with him, when it cracks, there seems to be nothing. Branagh’s Archie is a powerful symbol of a stale society that has focus on keeping up appearances and in the process lost its soul. Father Bill – Gawn Grainger’s spirited and truthful as well as poignantly satirical portrait eases the disappointment caused by John Hurt’s withdrawal from the production on health grounds – is pure past, a man lost in dreams of old grandeur, often tuning out of the present. Greta Scacchi is a powerful Phoebe who rages against her own insignificance, lashes out against the disappearance of her world, a lost figure and the prototype of the underappreciated woman. They all play-act, go through their routines, do what they’re taught to do. when that fails, they don’t know how to go on. The substance beneath the surface is gone – if it ever existed. Combining the domestic and the public in this way is a gutsy move but it works out. In the hollow dance routines and the refusal to accept reality, one glimpses a society resisting change – and making itself obsolete in the process.
Not all is good, though. Firstly, the production makes it too easy to miss the contemporary relevance of what we see. The nostalgic feel is so strong, the ghost-like quality – the show opens with a forlorn Branagh, sparsely lit on a foggy stage, performing a tap dance routine as if he were a ghost himself – so prevalent that the audience might not make the connection to today. Secondly, the focus is way too strongly on the older generations. Sophie McShera’s daughter Jean is too one-dimensional and too paper pamphlet to be a real counterpoint and Jonah Hauer-King’s son Frank could do with a little more rage underneath his wooden front. In addition, the production botches a few key scenes such as when the family hears about the death of their soldier son Mick which plays out with a subtlety and depth some soap operas would be ashamed of. In the end, Archie, suitcase in hand, walks off into a cold white light, a silhouette, a ghost, reminiscent of a certain US President-elect’s entry at his party convention this summer. unlike him, Archie and his world quietly walks off into oblivion. A touching, unassuming moment of great power that, however, should speak to us a little more. For the past isn’t over, the ghosts never left. You don’t have to turn on the news to know that.