Kenneth Branagh Dances in Olivier's Shoes in 'The Entertainer' – Review
The Telegraph, 31 August 2016
It’s one of the most iconic roles in post-war theatre: Archie Rice, the clapped-out music-hall act who stands at the demoralised heart of John Osborne’s 'The Entertainer': the bankrupt exponent of a dying art-form in a country reeling from the Suez Crisis. Laurence Olivier created the part. Now, almost 60 years on, it’s the turn of Kenneth Branagh.
How does he fare? How does he compare? To some, that line of inquiry might sound moribund. And yet Branagh, 55, has been likened to Olivier more than any other actor of his generation. His early success, his many Shakespearean roles too, makes it hard not to detect a cry of “For God, for Larry and for England!” in this choice, concluding his year at the Garrick.
The blunt truth? Olivier’s – to judge by the 1960 film – is the superior performance, blessed with a mercurial vitality and dangerous mischief that the benign Branagh can’t match. Yet Sir Ken goes some considerable and impressive way to stamping his own authority and personality on the part.
Literally so: the opening vignette replaces Osborne’s bleak scene-setting, introducing the brawling back-streets of a northern coastal town, with the sight of Archie alone, his back to us, head lowered, towel round his neck like a boxer readying for the next round. He conducts a slow tap-dance with a series of stomps and much deliberate, fancy leg-work, joined by a quartet of show-girls in negligées, tip-tapping in the shadows.
The action switches to the Rices’ draughty, down-at-heel digs, though designer Christopher Oram keeps everything within a decayed stage milieu: there are props and costumes ranged to one side; we’re in a replica proscenium-arch theatre, rafters poking through plasterwork. When Archie jokes “Don’t clap too hard, it’s a very old building”, the gag hits the mark.
Osborne elided the ailing world of the variety hall with microcosmic slices of troubled family life, creating a portrait of a disintegrating artist and a state-of-the-nation play at the same time. Branagh acquits himself with distinctive aplomb in each sphere but it’s his stage-business that captivates most.
Putting one in mind of Eddie Izzard with his red-lipsticked lips and toady grins, he’s convincing as a resolutely smiling trouper staring down the barrel of deadly audience indifference. Whether shuffling dandily along in tuxedo, dickie-bow tie and boater, cane-a-twirl, or camply dishing out Osborne’s knowingly excruciating, innuendo-laden repartee, you grasp why he’s top of the bill, yet never truly made it.
Director Rob Ashford gives us plenty of salacious suggestions of the “nude revue” that Archie is trying to shackle to his sinking vaudevillian mast. In terms of our own historical moment – with trouble again flaring in the Middle East, and the poignant demise of the Rice’s soldier son Mick hitting home – the revival is timely. But Ashford’s production could do with a more spirited tempo to compensate for the dialogue’s dated, often schematic quality, while there’s no getting around the abundant (to many ears today offensive) prejudice.
There’s fine support from Greta Scacchi as Archie’s care-worn, cheated-on wife Phoebe, and Gawn Grainger as his intemperate ex-showman father Billy. Jonah Hauer-King displays promise too as Archie’s conscientious-objector son Frank, as does Sophie McShera as his passionate, politicised daughter Jean.
The evening is bookended by beautiful, solitary silhouettes of Archie and, for all the shadow cast by Olivier, Branagh triumphs in style. Those seeking a night of laugh-out-loud entertainment, though, be warned: if they do, the joke’s on them. National decline and personal failure is, now as then, at root a serious business.
'The Entertainer' is playing at the Garrick Theatre, London until Nov 12.