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THEATRE REVIEW: The Entertainer/Manchester Royal Exchange

Philip Hamer is not wholly impressed by the this reinvigoration of a the 'state of the nation' classic

Published on November 12th 2009.

1956 was a pivotal year in British theatre. The début of John Osborne’s powerful Look Back in Anger ended forever the pleasant, inoffensive domesticity on the nation‘s stages. In that same year, Britain went to war over the Suez Canal; a conflict that divided the people in much the same way that recent wars have.

His overall performance, on which the entire production depends, lacks the blend of battered but powerful ego and residual menace that you would expect Rice to possess.

Bitterly disillusioned by his government’s behaviour, Osborne went seeking a few hours solace in a London music hall. It wasn’t the top of the bill that caught his eye in that once regal, thriving edifice, but a sad, washed-up comedian. In the failing comic and the dying music hall, Osborne saw a metaphor for the times and wrote The Entertainer. Laurence Olivier, acutely sensing the change in theatrical trends, brilliantly portrayed the comic Archie Rice on stage and screen. The play is now considered to be a state of the nation masterpiece.

David Schofield returns to the Royal Exchange for the first time in 18 years to play Rice in a production directed by Greg Hersov. He relishes some beautifully written lines, especially in the exchanges with his put-upon wife Pheobe, intelligently played by Roberta Taylor. But his overall performance, on which the entire production depends, lacks the blend of battered but powerful ego and residual menace that you would expect Rice to possess.

There is some skilful ensemble playing and the gin-sodden anger is impressive (bottles of it are consumed in the course of the drama). Two performances are magnificent: David Ryall as Billy Rice (Archie’s father) and Laura Rees as Jean (Archie's daughter). An ex-comic himself, Billy speaks for a vanished England; there's dignity amongst the confusion in his often poignant outpourings. Jean, meanwhile, speaks for the England of the future. She's passionately militant (like Osborne, she attends an anti-war rally) and is an eloquent, independent woman.

On this occasion, the theatre’s marvellous space doesn't enhance the production. With frequent music hall scenes, this play is better suited to a proscenium arched stage. Instead, the real power is in the writing: bold, colourful, passionate and without any of the political correctness a contemporary writer might bring. For you could imagine a current day playwright exploring the same subjects.

This is a twin tragedy: that of the family and the nation, both of which are slashed apart. Osborne displays an eerily prophetic genius in The Entertainer. Although it was written in 1957, it might be taking place today or next week.

Until 5 December, Royal Exchange Theatre, 0161 833 9833, royalexchangetheatre

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