REVIEW: THE ENTERTAINER (Garrick Theatre) ★★★

The Entertainer (Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company) - Jonah Hauer-King (Frank Rice) Credit Johan Persson 03251My, how time flies. The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s 13 month long ‘Plays at the Garrick’ season is drawing to a close and most would agree it’s been an artistic and critical success. There have been few wobbles along the way — a stylized but not totally captivating Romeo and Juliet for example. In the main though the season has been an engrossingly eclectic addition to the West End.

For the closing production, Branagh continues to follow in the footsteps of Laurence Olivier by taking the role of comedian, and flawed human being, Archie Rice in John Osborne’s play that uses the decline of the music halls where Archie plies his trade as a metaphor for Great Britain’s decline as a world power, with the action played out against the background of the Suez crisis.

But as much as the play is about change, the production also shows how things can stay the same. When Billy (Gawn Grainger), Archie’s father, launches into a polemic about “bloody Poles and Irish, and the black fella upstairs” it could easily be an anti immigration bar room rant straight out of post-Brexit 2016.

As Britain faces a crisis on a global scale, so Archie’s family struggles to deal with domestic troubles of its own.

His second wife Phoebe (Greta Scacchi) turns more and more frequently to the bottle in an effort to dull the pain of her husband’s serial philandering; daughter Jean (Sophie McShera) is back from London, now politically aware and threatening to break off her engagement, and Archie’s son Mick is embroiled in the military conflict dominating the headlines.

Plenty of meat then for a cast to get its teeth into. But while Greta Scacchi strikes a nice line between pathos and light comedy and Gawn Grainger brings Billy to crotchety, cantankerous life, Sophie McShera and John Hauer-King as her brother Frank are just too one note and give little depth to their characters. In the end they do little to make us care what happens to these people.

Branagh has bags of charm and delivers the seaside postcard gags with aplomb, but his Archie feels a tad too cultured and his suit was too smart and the chorus girls too gorgeous for a cheap production at a run down provincial theatre — the atmosphere of faded grandeur beautifully captured by Christopher Oram’s wonderful set.

Rob Ashford shows some nice directorial flourishes, not least with the play’s opening that sees Archie tap dancing alone in a single spot. But despite the best efforts of cast and creatives and the resonances with the current political state, this production does little to hide the fact that Osborne’s play is beginning to show a few creaks.

Reviewed by Tony Peters
Photos: Johan Persson

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THE ENTERTAINER plays at the Garrick Theatre until 12 November 2016. Tickets

THE ENTERTAINER is being broadcast to cinemas on 21 October 2016