Excerpted from First Nighter: Kenneth Branagh in John Osborne's "The Entertainer," Kemp Powers's Thrilling "One Night in Miami...," Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus" Undone," "How to Hide a Lion" for Kids
Huffington Post, 29 October 2016
Comparisons might be odious, but Kenneth Branagh invites them. Over several decades he's assumed classic roles associated with Laurence Olivier. His Henry V and Hamlet were unquestionably Olivier-worthy. Now, however, he's playing Archie Rice (for another two weeks) in John Osborne's 'The Entertainer', at the Garrick and as the conclusion to his Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company year.
It could be argued that Archie Rice was the great performance of Olivier's later career. I'd certainly make that argument vigorously. As the aging music hall performer, Olivier - frequently at his best when playing a ham (watch him in 'Sleuth', for instance - pulled out every last stop. His Archie Rice was someone far past his prime, a prime that probably was not much of a prime anyway. His on-setting desperation was visible in the song-and-dance routine that began the play.
Branagh starts with a deft tap routine executed in Neil Austin's hazy lighting and augmented by four dancing cuties. Immediately, Archie Rice's cheap turn, as Osborne plants it, is fudged. That's the start of director Rob Ashford's undercutting the playwright's music-hall metaphor - of the fading post-World War II music hall as a metaphor for the United Kingdom's post-war fade.
Yes, it looks as if Ashford, who started his career as a choreographer, is the explanation for this misguided look at 'The Entertainer', although since Branagh and he have been a team for a while now, Branagh can surely be assumed to be in agreement with all decisions made. (Chris Bailey and Pip Jordan are credited as, respectively choreographer and associate choreographer of the numbers.)
Osborne alternates the song-and-dance turns (Branagh has a strong voice, though he's not always pitch-perfect, perhaps deliberately) with Archie at home alongside his accommodating wife Phoebe (Greta Scacchi, very effective), father Billy Rice (Gawn Grainger, still an on-stage powerhouse), son Frank (Jonah Hauer-King) and nubile Jean Rice (Sophie McShera) for whom Archie makes a baleful play.
Somehow, these sequences seem diluted as well, the view of a troubled England surprisingly pallid. Perhaps 60 years on, Osborne's script is partially responsible for the lack of urgency. Nevertheless, the overall result is disappointing.
What's no letdown is Christopher Oram's set which melds the music hall with the Rice home so that at no time is Archie's squalid professional life absent from the mundane family activity.