The main characteristic of Monday's press night, sad and perhaps strange to relate, was not the play itself but the absence of the much-loved critic Jack Tinker, who had died suddenly earlier that day. A minute's silence was observed after the performance for a man who combined immense knowledge of theatrical data and people alike with an irrepressible sense of fun. As we remembered the last of his breed, a reviewer who regularly filed his copy by phone immediately after performances, it was grimly appropriate that the play being opened was in part an elegy for a dying culture: John Osborne's The Entertainer.
Stephen Rayne's production is edited down to around two hours and 20 minutes, and excises entirely the characters of Archie Rice's brother Bill and his daughter's fiancé Graham. The product is a more concentrated family drama, with some of the later scenes attaining a claustrophobic intensity. Graham and Bill's presence only in reported events, together with reports of Archie's financial and personal misalliances, give the impression of a group of people to whom things, if they happen at all, do so at one remove. This is a mixed blessing, as it both increases the stifling atmosphere in the living room and prevents any alleviation of it by outside characters or events – Archie's stage sequences neither are nor should be any kind of relief.
Michael Pennington's Archie is oddly reminiscent of Michael Gambon – not specifically the latter's 1993 television performance in the play, but the vein of tired brutality which underlies so many of his performances. In the stage scenes, Pennington hits, as it were, the right bum note as he wheedles, croons and taps his way to oblivion. His disintegration in the final sequence is beautifully handled.
However, Rayne's decision to erect the stage-upon-stage to the rear of the living room set rather than in front of it has several disadvantages: most of the time it distances us from the pitiful spectacle of Archie's greasepainted hollowness, and on the one or two occasions when he nevertheless ventures to the front to perform to us, we are unsubtly reminded that the episodes in question must be especially significant.
In fact, the combination of this staging and edit of Osborne's script severely lessens his intended sense of linkage between the defeated family, the dying medium of lusic hall and the terminal decline of England. All three are perceptible, but Rayne has placed the family literally and figuratively centre stage, and in so doing has drawn the play's teeth to a large extent.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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