The final offering from the Kenneth Branagh season at the Garrick Theatre is The Entertainer, which had its official opening night on August 30th. With Kenneth Branagh taking the lead role, this is the latest in a long line of hotly anticipated productions from the season.
Written by John Osborn, perhaps best known for his first play ‘Look Back in Anger,’ The Entertainer was first performed in London in 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre. This is its fourth revival in the West End and is directed by Rob Ashford, and it was last seen at the Old Vic in 2007.
The opening scene is theatrical beauty, so simply done but breath-taking, especially for a theatre geek like me. A spotlight mounted low at the back of the stage shines out, Kenneth Branagh appears in silhouette and slowly dances an almost ominous tap routine.
The story is set against the backdrop of the failing music hall era, Kenneth Branagh in the role of ‘Archie Rice’ sees his career, and his family, disintegrating before him. The decline of the music hall was meant as a metaphor for the decline of the country in the 1950’s; here we are more than half a century later and every line about the Government, The Prime Minister or Europe, could easily have been written yesterday.The character of ‘Archie Rice’ is not a pleasant man, but Branagh works hard to elicit the kind of response necessary from the audience so that you can, at least, feel some sympathy for the man losing his grip on everything.
Gawn Granger plays ‘Billy Rice’ a character that dislikes change in his old age and the foreigners who live downstairs, it’s a character we can all recognise, yet love at the same time. Sophie McShera is ‘Jean Rice’, his granddaughter; she captures the innocence of youth and the essence of a young woman setting out in the world.
Jonah Hauer-King is ‘Frank Rice’, he gives a wonderful performance with just a hint of song and dance that embeds the feeling of hopelessness that all of the characters feel.
The very talented Phil Dunster, playing ‘Graham’, makes an all too brief appearance in the penultimate scene, along with Crispin Letts as ‘Brother Bill’.
Greta Scacchi plays ‘Phoebe Rice’ in what was, perhaps, the standout performance of the evening. She brings a rich performance layered with comedy and grief that is very touching indeed.
The set for The Entertainer is designed by Christopher Oram, an advert for Yorkshire serves as the backdrop to the family living room, while a proscenium arch is present on stage throughout as we switch from home life to music hall.
This production of The Entertainer is both touching and alluring. It is a fitting finale to the Branagh season at the Garrick Theatre, a season that many of us are sad to see come to an end. Like ‘Archie Rice’, Branagh “had to try”, the difference is Branagh has succeeded.