In 1956 the Suez Crisis signalled the end of Britain as a world power, and its demise on the global stage is mirrored in the lives of Archie Rice and his family.
Television and rock ‘n’ roll threaten to eclipse the traditional English music hall, and Kenneth Branagh’s Archie, scion of a vaudevillian dynasty, is reduced to providing jokes and songs at a twice nightly nude review. A philanderer and a cynic, he claims to care for nothing but draft Bass pale ale.
First produced in 1957, The Entertainer secured the reputation of the playwright John Osborne as the archetypal “angry young man”, one of a group of mostly working- or middle-class writers whose domestic subject matter and attitude of disillusionment and contempt marked a break with the more refined entertainments of the pre-War period.
Though discussion of extramarital sex, and questioning the pillars of the establishment – politicians, the monarchy, even God – may have been edgy in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s, perhaps the most shocking aspect of the play for modern audiences is the casual racism.
Indeed, shifting social mores subtly change the play in a number of ways. For instance, Archie’s father was originally intended as the embodiment of Edwardian decency, but as he sings Onward Christian Soldiers and rails against Polish immigrants he comes off as something analogous to a racist uncle posting stories about Nigel Farage on Facebook.
In the past it was common to suggest that Branagh was the natural successor to Laurence Olivier, and here, playing a role originated by the great man himself, such comparisons are invited once more. Branagh captures the hammy desperation of a performer who can never turn it off, and proves adept at music hall skills, such as tap, patter, and comic singing. It is a compelling performance, but like Olivier it seems studied, and retains an air of artificiality. By contrast, Greta Scacchi vanishes into her role as Archie’s put-upon wife Phoebe, playing the part with a realism that’s at odds with the stagier acting of other members of the cast, especially Archie’s children.
The plot slowly loses cohesion, and the ending is annoyingly indeterminate, but the overall effect is more interesting than the individual parts, and it stays with you long after the curtain comes down.