Courtesy of BoxOffice.co.uk, I was given tickets to see the final play in Kenneth Branagh’s season at the Garrick Theatre. The seats themselves were fantastic, situated in the dress circle I had the perfect view of the stage. However, though my view of the stage was perfect, my views on the show itself are quite lukewarm.
‘The Entertainer’ is a play written by John Osbourne set in the 1950s England, at the time the Suez Crisis was happening as well troubles with the Middle East – there are opinions that Britain is “going down the drain”, and quite a lot of racist language used (which was acceptable for the time period). This situation compares all to well for audiences of today, in light of Brexit and the attitudes we have towards immigrants as well as all that is happening in Syria. Unfortunately, though we can identify this, we can’t identify WITH it. Something seems to fall short.
The play revolves around the manic Rice family who all have their secrets and individual issues which appear to make them “bad people”. A lot of the play consists of them standing around, drinking gin and arguing, but the dialogue is interesting enough, even if the language of the time feels so far removed from our own. Gawn Grainger, as retired music hall artist Billy Rice, handles his dialogue brilliantly, immediately capturing the audience with his opening speech, making us aware of the time period we are in and the opinions of the era. His performance is one of the best in the show, and gained many a laugh from his witty one-liners.
What is interesting about the play is that Music Hall is presented as a metaphor for the crumbling state of the British Empire. The set is at most pretty bare yet centered around a crumbling proscenium arch – a perfect image. Additionally at either end of the stage are two screens displaying the number scene currently playing which despite being slightly jarring works perfectly well.
Naturalistic scenes are interspersed, and sometimes interrupted by Archie Rice’s (Kenneth Branagh) tap-dancing music hall routines. The melting of the manic arguments of the Rice family and Branagh’s show numbers is cleverly done, and reminds me of the 2002 film ‘Chicago’. These musical numbers represent Archie’s emotions and his way of coping with his multiple issues, of which include his struggling Music Hall career, the death of his son, his disintegrating marriage and extramarital affairs, and dodging the income-tax man. So, instead of a breakdown, he charms the audience.
These music hall numbers were by far my favourite parts of the production. Branagh is effortlessly charming and moves in the ’50s style, immediately taking the audience back. His limp hands hint at sexual ambiguity, and his tap dancing is neat. He is truly a showman and these moments he is Archie Rice.
However, during the naturalistic scenes, Branagh takes the showman persona too far. His constant looks at the audience whilst speaking are jarring as none of the other actors do it. I would much rather have kept the style of the two types of scenes separate. He also appears to stutter and laugh mid-sentence, sometimes at himself, and I fear there may have been quite a bit of improvisation.
The other actors do well despite the obvious focus on Branagh. Sophie McShera, playing his daughter Jean is likeable and sweet, though I wish there would have been a little more bite to her. Luckily her brother Frank (Jonah Hauer-King) makes up for this and also has a brilliant singing voice I wish we had heard more of. Greta Scacchi as Archie’s long-suffering and ignored second wife Phoebe is superb, playing the role with both fragility and grace, but a powerful edge when needed. You can see her need to be loved the entire time, and she is dazzling to watch.
Although the production is charming and witty, with great Music Hall numbers and a cracking cast, something about it all feels slightly long and outdated. I’d began to shuffle in my seat during the second act, and lost interest as I didn’t seem to care about the character’s endings. It was all a bit too focused on the theatrical world and not enough on the heart of the story – the family.
Thank you once again to BoxOffice for a fantastic evening. ‘The Entertainer’ is playing at the Garrick Theatre until November 12th. You can book your tickets, see other reviews, and more at the link below: