Review: The Entertainer

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Beamed live to the screen at South Holland Centre, Spalding.

Social injustice looks pretty much the same whenever it occurs, you might think.

But as portrayed in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, beamed to the Spalding screen at South Holland Centre last Thursday, it appears a strangely different beast indeed.

As fellow audience member Annette Faulkner explained, the play needs to be watched in its historical context.

The Entertainer was first produced in 1957 and followed on from Osborne’s Look Back in Anger that depicted what became coined as an ‘angry young man’.

In The Entertainer, it is an angry, middle-aged man who is being portrayed, Archie Rice, played by Kenneth Branagh, a failing entertainer in the dying days of the old music halls.

The production got off to a confusing one for this reviewer with a young man talking directly to the audience about his remorse at the loss of theatres and dance halls. It appears he was talking to us for no other reason than he shares the same name as the famous playwright – when he was younger he told us people would say things like, ‘Don’t look back in anger’.

The young John Osborne had some interesting things to say about the way in which people once needed to be entertained as an escape from factory jobs, but that as other forms of amusement became commonplace many of these beautiful old theatres and music halls were turned into pubs or supermarkets.

It was the once successful music hall star Billy Rice, now retired, and his much less successful son Archie who provide the main structure for the play, and who display the bigotry that was meant to shock in 1957 and is even more shocking today. We are confronted with racism and sexism, particularly from Archie, whose second wife Phoebe works on the electrical counter at Woolies and has to put up with his affairs.

Around the characters of Billy and Archie are the figures of Phoebe, Archie’s sons, and his level-headed daughter Jean, visiting with news of a break-up with her fiancé. We learn this is because her fiancé disapproves of her growing political awareness – “He doesn’t want me to threaten him or his world” Jean observes.

We are also introduced to the idea of the New World, and the opportunities that would be open to the family if they emigrated to Canada and escaped “this cosy little corner of Europe”.

There were too many alcohol-fuelled monologues for this reviewer and the bigotry of the late 1950s jarred, but when Archie finally realises all is lost he sings soulfully, giving what is possibly the first authentic performance of his career. The play was thought-provoking and certainly not easy watching, which I’m guessing both John Osbornes would be pleased about.