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John Osborne’s The Entertainer is very much about 1950s Britain. Archie’s obstinate persistence with his failing vaudeville act, taken with the drab misery of his home life, becomes a metaphor for a shabby postwar England clinging to past glories. Archie’s grasping attempt to stage one last show coincides with the Suez Crisis. But the play is also very much about theatre itself. Archie’s addiction to his act speaks of the lure of theatre, the fear of failure and dream of success that drives every performance – no wonder Olivier went for the part. And Osborne uses the dying genre to create a new one, working vaudeville tricks into the kitchen sink drama, so that everyone gets to sing or dance or rant on cue, and style matches content in this bilious drama.
And one of the things that Robert Lindsay’s superb, subtle Archie makes clear is that he finds it impossible to stop performing. His act has become all he is. At home he never stops wisecracking, storytelling, putting on an act. Only once does the mask drop: when he first receives the telegram about his missing soldier son, Lindsay sags visibly and suddenly looks immensely weary. It’s a brilliant moment and one that reveals that the biggest act is to himself.
Lindsay’s Archie is a cruel, calculating character, but he is not entirely a monster. His act is not terrible, it’s mediocre, and it’s that knowledge that corrodes him. He can do the business – and Lindsay can do the business: the soft shoe shuffles, the hat tricks – but he’s an also-ran. Dapper yet seedy, vivid yet brittle, Lindsay looks like a used-car salesman who knows his goods are shoddy, but who is still slick with the patter.
Elsewhere it’s not all good news. The drink- sodden, squabbling domestic scenes are too long and get bogged down in repetitive arguments. The play would hit harder if it were more succinct and cut between the music hall and the digs more often. And in Archie’s daughter, Osborne creates one of his unconvincing female characters. But Sean Holmes’s fine production stokes up the energy and features some first-rate performances. John Normington is excellent as Archie’s Dad, a xenophobic, sentimental old reactionary, whose own music hall status taunts Archie constantly. And Pam Ferris is magnificent as Archie’s wife: delivering her gin- soaked rants almost as arias, she inspires both pity and contempt, then movingly gathers up her broken husband at the end.
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