“The Entertainer” is not a great play, but it is a historical one. Not only did John Osborne’s portrait of clapped-out vaudevillian Archie Rice encapsulate the England of its time, it occasioned a momentous performance from Laurence Oliver. Reviving it as the finale of his theater company’s West End season, Kenneth Branagh steps into Olivier’s shoes once more and, though he finds a new side to Rice, boyish and quixotic, the rest comes up well short – almost as dreary and dated as the art form it laments.
Branagh has long toyed with Olivier’s crown. Even in his early 20s, he was being heralded as the rightful heir: Larry II. He’s been treading in those footsteps ever since, this year’s stint as actor-manager included. It’s not without self-awareness: Branagh played his predecessor in “My Week With Marilyn.” Even so, tightening Archie Rice’s dickie bow is as conspicuous a callback as any.
Rice was one of Olivier’s all-time great turns. He found, in the two-bit music-hall comic, a thwarted star; a man who saw his name in lights, but never got past the end of the pier. With his art-form dying — a symbol of a diminished nation — Rice’s act seizes up. He keeps on smiling, but the cracks start to show as his debts mount, his home life derails, and his son dies at Suez.
Branagh offers a fresh take on Rice: not a boozed-up bully, but a little boy. Even at 55, the actor has a certain precocity that makes Archie’s straw boater looks like a school uniform. Sitting at home with his feet in a footbath and his trousers rolled up like shorts, he seems a kid at the seaside. And rather than a tyrant prowling his digs, he joshes with despairing family members — always performing, eyes front, winking to an imaginary audience.
Here, Rice’s tragedy is that he can’t see how tragic a figure he cuts. Where Olivier’s Rice knew, hauled himself onstage with a scowl behind the smile, Branagh’s just blinks cheerily into the footlights, blind to the way the world’s gone. If he’s missing the pride to tip into passive aggression, he’s all the more pathetic for that.
In the wake of Brexit, Osborne’s play resonates, it just never reverberates. The codgerish fist-waving of Rice Senior (Gawn Grainger), carping about “the Poles and Irish”, is starkly familiar. So too, the turmoil in the Middle East: Suez as seemingly insoluble as Syria. The Brexit vote has proved Little England alive and well; still as self-regarding and small-fry as it must have seemed in 1957; still insisting on the greatness of Great Britain, though empire and influence have long since waned. The country is a crumbling music hall once more. Christopher Oram’s set is gorgeously decayed, with holes in its heavenly frescos and silt stains up its walls. Lighting designer Neil Austin picks out its gilt edges with old low-watt lightbulbs.
Stripped of its currency, though, Osborne’s play loses its sting. Today, it looks rambling and repetitious: a state-of-the-nation scattershot. Archie excepted, emblematic characters have little by way of an inner life, and Rob Ashford’s production never remotely harnesses the resentments lying dormant in the Rice household; the wear and tear of long-term, low-level unhappiness. In fact, everyone seem to muddle along OK. As Archie’s second wife, cheated on and ignored, Greta Scacchi drowns her pain in gin, but never lets it break the surface. Sophie McShera’s Jean is perfectly meek in a part that never develops, and Grainger cranks well enough, but doesn’t crack when frogmarched back onstage by his son.
It’s possible Branagh’s Archie is too nice — a self-deluded dreamer, drifting cheerily along, rather than a desperate man pushing personal failure onto his family. If he’s impossible to live with, it’s because he’s a child, not a tyrant. There’s no need to pussyfoot around him.
Mostly, though, Osborne’s text is no longer fit for its purpose, leaving only a great part in a raggedy, old play. Archie’s act is no longer just jaded but fossilized, and, as such, the play can’t swing from pressure-cooker naturalism to front-curtain hilarity. Its politics are long dead, its dialogue outdated and, 50 years on, “The Entertainer” shows all the symptoms it diagnoses. Osborne’s play is every bit as tired as Archie Rice’s routines.
That’s Branagh’s fundamental miscalculation, even if Rice himself remains a great role. “The Entertainer” revitalized Olivier’s career because it was a fresh start, a great Shakespearean star joining the new wave of new writing. Reviving it isn’t a risk, but a repeat, and Branagh plays it too safe.