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The Entertainer, Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton - review

By Alison Norton | Entertainment | Published:

Eastenders star Shane Richie appears at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre this week, in John Osborne’s classic play, The Entertainer.

The Entertainer, with Shane Richie and Sara Crowe as Archie and Phoebe Rice

Although originally written and set in 1956/1957 during the Suez Crisis, this new version has been updated and now takes place during the Falklands war, an era which makes sure it retains the original political connotations and hard-hitting, gritty feel.

Failing British music hall performer Archie Rice is determined to continue to tread the boards at any cost, despite the fact that his act and in fact his whole career is clearly washed-up and out dated.

As Archie’s family prepare a party for the long awaiting return of his son Michael from the military, they are suddenly confronted with heart-breaking news of his death.

In his grief, Archie throws himself into a new show, to distract both himself and his aged father Billy from the anguish and misery, naturally without success. When Archie’s brother invites the family to join him in Canada for a fresh start, Archie is tempted but simply cannot bring himself to leave the crumbling, fading world of the music hall, where he feels most at home on stage.

Billed as one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century, I was intrigued to see not only why the play had received such high praise, but also how Shane Richie would portray Archie Rice, given the much lighter, comedic characters for which he is usually known. But then there is a very fine line between comedy and tragedy and Richie walks that line to perfection.

Up there with his predecessors, including Kenneth Branagh, Robert Lindsay and the mighty Laurence Olivier, Shane Richie perfectly captures that end of the pier, brazen, humorous style of comedians pre-alternative comedy and commands the stage at every entrance.

His ability to create a character who manages to take everything to the very edge, creating both laughter and tears, is repugnant yet venerable and his ability to silence and enthral the audience tangible.

Richie’s role of Archie Rice and his dying art actually represent Great Britain and the way the country was moving forwards and onwards leaving some in its wake and Richie certainly gets this fact over in his portrayal.

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John Osborne’s script is to be admired but makes for very uncomfortable watching. The blatant racism, sexism and political themes do may you cringe, but of course are time appropriate. As the play progresses, Archie’s jokes become cruder and less amusing, simulating the mood of the piece, which I suspect was Osborne’s total intention.

Understudy Alice Osamanski as long-suffering wife, Phoebe, did a sterling job, covering the role at very short notice, ringing every moment of emotion and sensitivity out of a woman who Archie has ill-treated, cheated on and down trodden all their married life, while Diana Vickers as his daughter Jean was feisty and militant.

Christopher Bonwell made the most of his small role as Frank, but it is Pip Donaghy who almost steals the show with a seasoned performance as Billy Rice, Archie’s father.

Director Sean O’Connor was brave to update the play to the 1980’s and on the whole, it works, although I couldn’t help feeling that in reality Archie’s music hall, variety career would have been over many, many years earlier, but otherwise, his interpretation is well rounded.

The Entertainer has divided theatregoers and critics alike for over 60 years, me included, but there is no denying that it is a superbly written, thought-provoking, timeless piece of literature by an angry young playwright, in this case delivered by a talented cast and will no doubt see endless remakes in the future.

Runs until Saturday. 01902 429212 or www.grandtheatre.co.uk for tickets.

Alison Norton

By Alison Norton
@AlisonNorton

Theatre critic and unofficial 'am dram queen' for the Express & Star and Shropshire Star

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