The Entertainer, the final production of Kenneth Branagh’s 2015/16 season was one of my most anticipated plays of the year and failed to live up to expectations.
It should work, Kenneth Branagh as Archie Rice is great casting as Branagh is often compared to Laurence Olivier who originated the role in 1956 despite his hostility to playwright John Osborne, but what should be Branagh’s and the play strengths, its dramatic scenes, are weak and overshadowed by the scenes where we see Rice being entertainer. To me it feels like the production took risks with the musical scenes, the first scene where Archie is rehearsing in the shadows is beautiful and for anyone seeing the cinema screenings on 27 October then it will look like it was made for film but the home scenes feel so tedious that it is hard to warm to play. There is also the fact that Branagh looks too good for his 55 years and doesn’t have the lived in look that Olivier had.
The story also involves the Suez crisis and this is where it feels the production has dated. It isn’t a war people seem familiar with, an American tourist told me she was completely confused in the interval. I am afraid I haven’t read the play but it felt like either exposition was needed or had been taken out. Characters appeared and disappeared without proper introduction and it just felt like there was a desperate rush to avoid the key family drama that is at the heart of the play.
The most disappointing aspect was the supporting actors with only Greta Scacchi, who is unrecognisable, providing the emotion and conflict that is needed in the production. As Phoebe Rice she has to deal with a son at war, a miserable life touring whilst her husband loses money and his infidelities. She is no means a likeable character and as a result Scacchi’s performance is entirely convincing. Gawn Grainger has a tough role as Billy Rice, Archie’s father who also worked as an entertainer. It is a thankless part and unfortunately for Grainger I found myself wondering how John Hurt, who dropped out due to health reasons, would have approached this minor role.
The main issue is the younger cast, Branagh’s season has oozed with young talent such as Tom Bateman, Richard Madden, Freddie Fox, Jessie Buckley and Lily James but this final production has a weak cast of young actors. Sophie McShera looks the part as Jean Rice, Archie’s daughter, but she is no Joan Plowright, monotone and uncomfortable there is no emotion from this woman who is angry about life, I also found the Jonah Hauer-King’s performance as Frank to be unconvincing. It isn’t a bad performance but his entrance into the play comes at a strange time, the audience builds up relationship with the other Rice’s that he feels like an intruder.
The strongest aspects are the staging, musical direction, choreography and costume, it looks the part but lacks in substance to make this one of the must see productions of 2016.
This was a preview seen at The Garrick Theatre on 27 August 2016