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Liverpool Playhouse has opened its doors under the new directorship of Gemma Bodinetz with an adventurous, some would say dangerous first choice of production, John Osborne’s darkly political swipe at fifties Britain, The Entertainer. The play resonates with our own problems and was obviously chosen to reflect the issues that matter to us today. Written in 1956-7 at a time when the government was sending troops to the middle east to defend that bastion of empire, Suez, The Entertainer explores the futility of war whilst questioning Macmillan’s ‘we’ve never had it so good’ mentality. Unlike today, the British and French troops are forced out of Suez because of American condemnation of this despicable act of empiricist militarism. The resignation of Prime Minister Eden due to ‘ill health’, and his replacement by Harold Macmillan, is followed by a return to the suspicious entente cordiale of the Cold War, with Eisenhower’s decision that ‘there are long-term bonds that bind together the British Empire’ and America. Meanwhile, young National Service conscripts are killed or captured, and the conflict does little to secure a lasting peace for the troubled region.
Osborne explores the political fallout from this conflict on an extra-ordinary fifties family, who are themselves fighting a rearguard action against modernity and changing artistic taste. They are devastated by a military enterprise that no-one expected or particularly supported, sponsored by the mandarins of central government at a time when post-war austerity was supposedly a thing of the past. The future was rosy. The future was good. It was surely the perfect time to be The Entertainer.
Like so many children of the sixties, I was brought up on the Olivier film of the same title, with the end of pier performer, Archie Rice, greasepainting his way to the comedian’s graveyard; in Archie’s case, a season at West Hartlepool. I knew nothing of the play on which the film is so loosely based, and it came as a refreshing shock to experience the stultifying claustrophobia of the seaside turn’s digs, the entire family following their bread-, or in this case booze-winner, around the post-war entertainment circuit soon to be swallowed whole by the television age. The vaudeville glamour that Olivier inevitably brought to the screen bears little relation to the gritty depression of Osborne’s stage play, which is purposefully painful to watch.
As the child of an ENSA mother and bandleader father, brought up on tales of Florrie Ford and Roy Fox, and born in Bristol just because the Mecca Ballroom needed opening that April, I felt a tug of nostalgia at this ageing entertainment family, forever living for the next job and the next pay packet, endlessly regrouping in tired digs. In Rice’s case, these digs are also frequented by ‘Poles’ and ‘ballet dancers’. Never a one for subtle euphemism, Archie systematically alienates every social minority with his tirades against what he sees as the foreign menace disrupting the harmony of his blinkered British tax avoiding existence.
Archie is accompanied through life by his father, Billy Rice, an old music hall turn himself who obviously was the talented member of the family, but whose ‘comeback’ to secure Archie’s continued survival in the business has tragic results. For some reason, Archie’s son Frank also sticks with this failure of a human being, sniping at his father’s ineptitude at every opportunity, but suffering from the family malaise and inability to escape the tissue thin glamour of the stage.
Most importantly for this wicker trunk family is Archie’s second wife, Phoebe, an inebriated woman desperately trying to hang on to her looks, her husband, and her sanity. Phoebe totters on perilous heels to perpetuate the impression of the young chorus girl who nabbed the married comedian. Archie admits to his daughter that her mother discovered Phoebe in bed with him. A moment of guilt, or perhaps pride, before the inevitable process of finding a newer, younger version to replace Phoebe grinds into action.
Paola Dionisotti as Phoebe Rice is superb in this pitiful role. Every careworn and extravagant gesture fighting an inner anger and despair that only occasionally breaks the surface. Constantly referred to by her husband as dizzy and unintelligent, Dionisotti embraces this dizziness, but betrays the frightened innocence and maternal strength denied by her enforced step-motherly existence. At one moment above the roar of a family feud, or maybe just Archie’s inebriated and pompous roar, Dionisotti twists her arms above her gin-soaked head and childishly points to herself as if to say ‘I need to speak, please let me speak’. As she dances and occasionally sings around the stage, Phoebe is so real we want to shout ‘get out, get away’. Her hands never far from her face and gesturing volumes of internalized dialogue, Dionisotti’s performance alone deserves an award for its honesty and vitality.
Mark Rice-Oxley, (I bet the casting department had fun with that one) is likewise perfectly cast as the rather prim post-war lad, Frank Rice, who appears more at home in a bank than parading on the boards. Rice-Oxley appears relaxed and at home in his fifties environment, and his comic delivery is counterbalanced by a sympathetic and heartfelt reality. This is especially evident when he announces the death of his brother at the hands of the Egyptians. Frank is always there for his step-mum Phoebe, always ready to lend a hand, to run a chore, but at this moment his whole life becomes meaningless, shattered by the reality of life outside the entertainment industry.
Of course, the family does have some history, and this is personified by old Billy Rice, Archie’s dad, played with aplomb by Leslie Randall. As the programme notes point out, Randall is the real McCoy, brought up on variety and music hall. Anyone who’s appeared on the bill with Sinatra deserves credit for knowing something about the business. Randall is the loveable granddad who still manages to reminisce a bit too frequently about chorus girls, and who sneaks into the kitchen to get the first pickings of a celebration cake. Self-centred and nostalgic, Randall is old Billy to the end, and a fine job he makes of it too. His granddaughter, Jean, returns to the fold to discuss politics and man trouble, and Eileen Walsh valiantly struggles with Osborne’s least rounded figure in the play.
Corin Redgrave steps into the shoes of Archie Rice, and the result is interesting if not sparkling. It is a brave actor who consciously chooses to portray a fading comic. It is a brave actor who faces a wet Tuesday night audience, whether in Liverpool, Yarmouth, Cleethorpes or Morecambe. Redgrave suffered all this and more, and Archie’s appalling comic delivery and unsubtle sexual innuendoes sank without trace in the apparent vastness of the Playhouse auditorium. Redgrave’s delivery reminded me of Michael Gambon attempting an impression of Frankie Howard out of Roy Hudd. Of course, Osborne’s favourite performer was Max Miller, and so much of Archie’s material is Milleresque in its naughtiness; even so, Redgrave appears even more uncomfortable than the character demands. I would have preferred Archie Rice to have displayed a little more of his father’s legendary talent. Redgrave’s Archie Rice in performance would have resulted in a stampede to the pier box office and a demand of one’s sixpence forthwith.
Away from the feedback screeching microphone and the shocking comic spotlight, Redgrave displays his true talent as the bitter father and husband whose only cause for celebration is the twentieth anniversary of his avoidance of the taxman. Redgrave is a seedy delight as the lecherous Archie defends his latest young conquest, insults his long-suffering second wife, is insensitive to his children whilst manipulating his old and sick father into reviving a performance long-buried. Redgrave gives guts to the drunken ranting of this wretched man, and the grief at the news of his son’s death in captivity, tinged with the sardonic patter of the comic unable to escape the circle of loss and failure, is moving to the extreme. We cannot sympathise with Archie as a man, but we all can empathise with Archie as a failed human being. Redgrave gives us the inhumanity of Archie and in the process, we question our own humanity.
The Playhouse stage is laid bare for this production. Ti Green has opened the backstage of this original Victorian music hall to display the fly ropes, the scene dock, and the grotty butler’s sink for mopping the stage. The vast expanse utilizes an understage entrance as the stairs into the garret digs, two stage-prop doors to isolate the living area, and a smattering of vital furniture, piano, table, chairs, leather armchair and giant gas-fired radio. The effect is interesting, although for such an intimate and airless piece, the expansive barn-like quality was strangely incongruous. Plenty of distraction when what was needed was focus. The final image is clever and thought-provoking, but the impression is left that a lot of effort went into designing around a final stage-effect. John Tiffany’s direction is crisp, although the performers appear uncomfortable when treading on each other’s lines in an attempt at kitchen sink realism.
The Entertainer is a brave choice for the revival of the Liverpool Playhouse as a national venue for dramatic excellence. It heralds an artistic management who are not afraid to take risks, and that is the best news that Liverpudlian theatregoers could ever have. With such artistic bravery comes the inevitable teething troubles of finding an identity, a house-style that recognises the need for new writing whilst catering for, and hopefully educating, a more traditional audience. This production bodes well for the future. My best advice is to ‘watch this space’; Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse are obviously going to be a force to reckon with.
Kevin Quarmby © 2004 Originally published 22-01-04
The Entertainer ran at Liverpool Playhouse from 16 January to 7 February.
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