Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Olivier, John Osborne (and Shane Richie…)

Wed 14 Aug 2019

Sean O’Connor, Director of The Entertainer tells us more about why Shane Richie is the perfect fit to take on one of the most iconic roles in theatre, Archie Rice.

In 2009 in a car park somewhere in Essex, Shane Richie and I were waiting for the rain to stop whilst shooting a remake of Minder where he was playing Arthur Daley’s nephew, Archie Daley. ‘What you must do before you die,’ I suggested, ‘is play Archie Rice in The Entertainer.’  Shane wasn’t sure- Lord-bleedin’Olivier created the role! Yes, I said, but Osborne felt that the actor who really got the part was the comedian Max Wall whose Archie Rice in 1974 made Olivier ‘look like an amateur.’

Shane has worked his way up through the entertainment business, from Pontins blue coat, to game show host, from the West End to TV stardom in EastEnders. He worked with the great comics of the 1970s and 80s at the start of his career and the end of theirs; entertainers just like Archie Rice. Excited and daunted at the prospect, Shane felt that this could be the role of a lifetime; the role he was born to play.

In May 1956, John Osborne changed the face of British theatre overnight with his sensational debut, Look Back in Anger. At the time, Laurence Olivier was filming with Marilyn Monroe. She had seen the play and suggested that Olivier should see it. He thought Look Back a ‘travesty on England’ but was canny enough to realise that Osborne was a vital new voice. He wondered if Osborne was working on anything else? Osborne said that he was writing about a washed-up entertainer. Would Olivier like to read the script?

Olivier’s indelible performance- and the fact that it is set during the dimly remembered Suez crisis of 1956- has cast a shadow over the play. Talking to the Osborne Estate about the possibility of Shane playing Archie, I wondered if we could we bring the action closer to the present day, to give the audience a better sense of the context of the story. Thinking of the comedians Shane had worked with as a young performer, I started to think about the rise of the Comedy Store in the early 1980s, which had ushered in a whole new style of ‘alternative’ comedy. At a stroke, comedians like Archie who had relied on sexist, racist jokes as the core of their act were out of fashion and very soon out of work.  At the same time, in 1982, Britain went to war with Argentina over sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. Like Suez, it was a moment when Britain was trying to establish its status as an international power. The political context, the change in entertainment fashions- the 1982 setting seemed to fit very neatly. And with the UK’s current uncertain future and the cultural context following MeToo, Osborne’s drama speaks to us directly across the years with wisdom, insight and a touch of prophecy. It’s not just a certain type of entertainer that is outmoded in 2019- but a certain type of man.

We’re thrilled to have secured an amazing cast for this exciting new production, including the Oliver-award winning Sara Crowe who will be amusing audiences as Archie’s wife Phoebe, even as she breaks their hearts. And I’m delighted that the multi-talented Diana Vickers is playing Archie’s daughter, Jean. Diana says, ‘Jean’s a woman who’s waking up to the realities of life- seeing her dad- and everything he represents- for what they are.  She’s a modern woman with a strong sense of values and she’s not afraid to shout about them. So I’m really, really excited about bringing her to life.’

So, ten years on, here we are with Shane about to tackle one of the most challenging roles in 20th century theatre and the most demanding of his own career; no mean feat. As he says, ‘Archie Rice is such an iconic character. I genuinely feel like I’m about to climb a mountain. But I can’t wait to get to the top!’