Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Entertainer - Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

The Entertainer
Writer: John Osbourne
Director: Greg Hersov
Reviewer: John Roberts

One would be forgiven if you knew nothing of the production, that by its title you were going to get a light hearted romp to wash away the winter night blues, but if you take a closer look at the poster design you know that, this isn’t what you are going to get!

Greg Hersov ‘s first outing of Osbournes’ Look Back in Anger transferred to the National Theatre, so it is without question that the Exchange should use Hersov to direct this revival, but it is never going to be an easy task The Entertainer is synonymous with Lawrence Olivier whos famous portrayal of Archie Rice is argued as being one of the best on stage performances ever, but do not fear as this production stands strong all on it's own merits.

Archie Rice is a fading Musical Hall performer, married to his second wife Phoebe and living with his retired father Billy. His oldest son Mick is off fighting for his country in the middle east, his youngest son Frank has just moved back home after spending time on her Majesty’s pleasure and a surprise visit by daughter Jean, who has just called off her engagement to Grahame for attending a political rally in Trafalgar square just ramps up the tension in the already dysfunctional family.

Osbourne's writing has never felt more timely with the thoughts of the plays main protagonist's resonating with many voices in today's disillusioned society, although many would argue that the play doesn't stand the test of time and sits rather pungently, I would argue that this is a real slice and voice of a generation that is sadly passing us by and it is only by understanding where these voices and concerns came from can we truly understand and appreciate where we are today and how we got there.

Hersov’s direction of the piece generally moves along smoothly and swiftly with some of the best and most open uses of the exchanges ‘Round’ stage I have seen, which is clearly helped by wooden boarded and simple set by Laurie Dennett. The sharp and witty first half flies by but the pace starts to lag in the longer and darker second act, and it is here that this play falls down slightly, (my colleague pointing out that yet again ‘the exchange has found a play where the ending could have come in several places and yet just keeps the audience sat in their seats for fifteen minutes too long.’) however saying that, the performances from the cast are superb.

Roberta Taylor beautifully portrays the put upon second wife Phoebe, with an air of working class pride, showing simmering resentment yet a strong love for her wondering husband. Laura Rees is very much the stronger female figure in the production as daughter Jean, very much the true vision of a more independent and sophisticated woman, played with a real passion and sternness throughout , but it is the males in the production that pull out the finest performances of the evening.

David Ryall is on full form as Grandfather Billy, providing a much needed warmth on the stage and accompanied by excellent comic timing, you can’t help but feel you have lost someone very dear by the end of the play. David Scholfield as Archie pulls out all the stops in a powerhouse performance that leaves the audience feeling cold and slightly uneasy at his wandering thoughts and dishonest ways. Schofield surprised with his warm baritone singing voice, however the sound mixing needs to be improved if the audience are to hear him sing as you would hope for.
The Entertainer provides some of the warmest and heartfelt performances that I have seen on stage in a long time, and although there are elements of the production that could be tighter and tweaked this is a stunningly dark and mesmerising two and a half hours of theatre.
Photos: Jonathan Keenan
runs until Sat 5th Dec
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