MENTION John Osborne’s classic play ‘The Entertainer’ and Sir Laurence Olivier springs to mind – he made the part of infamous Archie Rice his own both on stage and screen. It is a brave actor who dares to follow in those hallowed 1957 footprints, but here we are some 60 years later with Shane Richie revelling in a role he too seems have been born to play.
When we first meet Archie, it is on stage as a club comedian seemingly left over from another age. He is pleasant enough and he engages us instantly – but is this pity we feel rather than admiration?
Director Sean O’Connor (I presume it’s him as there are no other writing or staging credits in the programme) has set this new version in Thatcher’s Britain of 1982 where we are about to embark on our last hurrah sending what’s left of the fleet to the Falklands for a bit of Argy bargy.
Normally I am very wary of updates just for the sake of it (the original chronicled the Suez Crisis of the 1950s), but this is a stroke of genius – the cap certainly fits and I’m so glad O’Connor didn’t try to tie it in with Brexit – tempting, as I’m sure it was.
Comedy went through a massive change in the 1980s – it was the time of the subtle clever stand-up replacing the obvious cheeky chappy like Archie.
His response is to resort to tasteless and racist, toe-curling humour and his love affair with the audience becomes more fractured every time he performs to us.
Of course he can’t see what’s happening – it’s our fault.
Running alongside the fall and fall of Archie Rice on stage is the disintegration of his dysfunctional family and home life. Seemingly the only common denominator they all have is an unquenchable appetite for endless tumblers of gin.
Everyone starts out as normal, take Granddad Billy Rice (an ebullient Pip Donaghy), himself an old entertainer, warm as toast in welcoming Jean, Archie’s daughter by his first marriage when she turns up unexpectedly. But this isn’t exactly a social call – Jean (a convincing Diana Vickers) has come to lick her wounds following breaking up with her fiancée. Her character unfolds like a flower – from bud to bloom in complexity. She has been an active protester against the Falklands war in direct contrast to her brother Mick who is Archie’s hero son away fighting for Queen (her majesty’s portrait adorns the lounge wall) and country (there are Union Flags hanging in the window).
Sarah Crowe plays Archie’s long-suffering second wife Phoebe – she perfectly captures a woman who tolerates the misogynistic treatment dished out to her because whilst she isn’t exactly happy to be a victim, the alternative frightens her even more.
Phoebe’s solution: drink more and smile. turn a blind eye to Archie’s philandering and constant put-downs and fuss over everyone like you’re a real mother hen.
Finally there is Frank (a sardonic, ever-smiley Christopher Bonwell), Archie’s other son whose job it is to introduce Archie on stage and be his gofer in life – providing him with whatever he wants.
O’Connor’s direction is very clever, he uses the political backdrop by way of red top paper headlines in a cacophonistic harmony with Archie’s descent into obscurity and likewise family battles echo the political squabbles.
Shane Richie gives us a tour-de-force as the ubiquitous creature that is Archie Rice – like Lord Olivier he will be a very had act to follow.
He is not always an easy watch, in fact there are times when Richie’s Rice makes you squirm with embarrassment – even to the point of feeling unclean in his presence; just like the master John Osborne intended.
There is much to relish in this production and perhaps even more to ponder over on the journey home.
The Entertainer runs at Malvern Theatres until Saturday, September 14.