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It is the part that restarted Laurence Olivier’s career. Corin Redgrave performed it late on in life. Michael Gambon did so on screen. Three years ago, Kenneth Branagh took it on in the West End. Now, this autumn, it’s Shane Richie’s turn…
If the ex-EastEnders star sticks out amongst such illustrious theatrical company, each of them knighted for their contribution to the stage, there’s a decent argument to say Richie’s better suited to this particular part than any of them.
Archie Rice, the snarling protagonist of John Osborne’s classic The Entertainer, is a washed-up music hall star: an old-school comedian and second-rate stand-up still stepping out, well past his prime, to deliver out-of-date gags.
Richie, more than most, knows what that’s like. He cut his teeth on the comedy circuit in the late-eighties before finding fame on primetime TV. “None of those guys played the pubs and clubs,” he says, sat in a swish West End theatre bar. “None of them knew what it’s like to stand there doing stand-up, dodging beer mats and pint glasses with people going, ‘F-off, you’re s***.’” Quick as a flash, he adds: “That was last Tuesday…” Still got it, Shane Richie.
The Entertainer is one of the great post-war plays. Written on the quick in 1957, less than a year after Look Back in Anger launched Osborne’s career at the Royal Court, it is a wildly ambitious state-of-the-nation play.
Osborne uses a creaking, old-fashioned comedian to parallel Britain’s waning international influence. As Archie Rice steps out onstage, his act seizing up, Anthony Eden’s government is stumbling into the Suez Crisis with the Empire winding down. The comic keeps smiling, but the cracks start to show: debts mount, jokes die, family feuds start to fester.
“I’ve always loved the extraordinary ambition of that vision,” beams director Sean O’Connor. “People might think Osborne only wrote kitchen sink plays, but it’s absolutely not that. It’s part music hall, part family drama and part nowhere-land. It’s a very ambitious, powerful play, but I’ve always felt that something stops the audience getting to it.”
The Entertainer is very much of its time. Opening so soon after Suez, its premiere felt fiercely present tense but, more than 60 years on, it can seem strangely fossilised. As O’Connor acknowledges: “It’s set so specifically in 1956 that you need to know all about Suez and the music hall. It’s become a slightly holy grail set text when, in actual fact, Osborne always said he really wanted to move people.”
Determined to make it accessible again, O’Connor has transposed the play to the early Eighties – 1982, to be precise. The parallels are remarkable. “Britain is again trying to establish its status as an international power,” O’Connor points out. Margaret Thatcher was on manoeuvres in the Falklands. Britain was changing fast – and beyond recognition. Comedy, too: old-school club comics like Bernard Manning were on the way out, shown up and supplanted by a new wave of alternative comedians.
Re-enter Archie Rice – fallen from fame and deeply bitter about it. “So bitter,” says Richie, “and he brings all that to the stage.” For an actor as clubbable as Richie, that’s not easy. “I’ve done stand-up, I’ve done game shows. The thing you do is, ‘Come on, I know you love me, course you do.’ Now I’ve got to fight against that. I’m going to play a comic who’s fallen from grace and hates – loathes – the people in front of him.”
Richie knows the sort all too well. His dad ran comedy clubs when sexist, racist jokes were “the staple diet of comics” and he supported his share of “summer season acts” starting out. The challenge, Richie reckons is finding the moment the mask drops: When do we see the real Archie, not just the act?
Richie’s intrigued to find out. “I made a decision two years ago: I wanted to play some characters that would give me my fear back. I wanted to stand in the wings and go, ‘Oh my god. I don’t know if I can pull this off.’ Fight or flight.” He’s just finished a West End run of the hit musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, playing an aging ex-drag queen. “I enjoyed the fear of that,” he says. “I’d missed the butterflies.”
For all it’s challenges, O’Connor believes The Entertainer lives up to its name. His staging will offer a history of post-war popular culture “from Glenn Miller to Kajagoogoo” to chart Britain’s decline after World War Two. “Osborne was a real democrat with theatre. He wanted his plays to be entertaining, so you get the gags, the music and a bit of smut.” At the same time, O’Connor sees “a family drama as vicious as a Strindberg or a Eugene O’Neill” and he’s cast stage veterans Sara Crowe and Pip Donaghy, alongside Diana Vickers, as Archie’s family.
It’s a fascinating moment to take a classic state-of-the-nation play around the nation. O’Connor believes it will resonate: “You don’t have to press very far to see its relevance,” he says, either politically with Brexit or culturally in the wake of right-on comedy. Richie’s excited: “It’s like it’s no longer going to be the best kept secret. Everyone will get to see John Osborne’s masterpiece.”
Photography by Alex Rumford.
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