Excerpted from Review: ‘The Entertainer,’ ‘Unfaithful’ and ‘They Drink It in the Congo’
New York Times, 10 September 2016
The hoped-for grand finale turns out to be an anti-climax: That’s the dispiriting truth about the new West End revival of “The Entertainer,” in which an actor frequently touted as the heir to Laurence Olivier inherits a part immortalized by him 59 years ago.
I’m referring to Kenneth Branagh, who first came to attention in one of Olivier’s signature roles — Henry V, on stage and screen — and went on to play Olivier in the 2011 film “My Week with Marilyn,” for which he was nominated for an Oscar. Now he has cast himself in Olivier’s archetypal role of Archie Rice, the down-on-his-luck music hall performer at the blighted heart of John Osborne’s play. The new production, which runs at the Garrick Theater through Nov. 12, brings his company’s yearlong residency there to an end.
What ought to have been a match made in theatrical heaven seems oddly tentative, as if performer and part have yet to fully align. As directed by Rob Ashford, the American director-choreographer who has been a colleague of the British actor for several years, Mr. Branagh’s Archie looks great (those calf muscles!) and dances well — too well, some might argue, for a person so in the dumps.
But he only fitfully comes by the visceral attack that was Osborne’s stock in trade and that, as Robert Lindsay proved when he played Archie at the Old Vic in 2007, can make both the play and the character live anew.
Osborne’s work doesn’t stint on the dyspeptic, and his bitchiness crackles still. Random insult: “I’ve taken my glasses off. I don’t want to see you suffering.” What’s missing is the feel of an ensemble, starting with its star, committed to driving one’s sense of this play-as-indictment. The period work’s more xenophobic comments tally with post-Brexit Britain, even though they originate in their author’s wish to awaken both Archie and his audience from the deadening anesthesia that Osborne equated with life.
Mr. Ashford’s musical theater background is evidenced in the leggy female dancers who appear now and again as if on loan from the company of “Chicago.” But there’s too little sense of Archie and his act giving way to terminal self-disgust.
Christopher Oram’s evocative design suggests a blurring of reality by positioning a once-grand proscenium arch within the Rice’s family home, and Neil Austin’s lighting casts a shimmer that can turn ominous at will. And yet the production that ought to have ended Mr. Branagh’s occupancy of the Garrick Theater on a high turns out to be as mixed a bag as most of what came before it. “Old Archie … dead behind the eyes,” as the script puts it, needs more life.