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David Benedict: Like Leicester Curve’s The Entertainer, some shows are ripe for reinvention

Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer in 1957 Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer in 1957
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In the Olympics of Great Movie Taglines, I long ago declared a dead heat between the two horror pictures The Dentist 2 –“You know the drill!” – and The Lift, which screamed, in capital letters: “FOR GOD’S SAKE TAKE THE STAIRS.” But I’ve just discovered a third candidate.

I cannot imagine a less appropriate depiction of the film in question but the poster for Tony Richardson’s 1960 film The Entertainer cries: “As the applause grew fainter… As the spotlight grew dimmer… His women were younger!” It’s true that there are key women in the film, but facts must be faced: that tagline is like describing The Sound of Music as a treatise on dressmaking with curtains.

The film is actually an adroitly opened-out adaptation of John Osborne’s 1957 play, thanks to a screenplay by Nigel Kneale (husband of Judith Kerr, who wrote The Tiger Who Came to Tea), which faithfully recreates the original’s social and political intent. The play had arrived a year after Osborne hit the headlines with Look Back in Anger, the play that heralded the Angry Young Man era. By contrast, the anti-hero of The Entertainer, Archie Rice, is an angry middle-aged man, a down-at-heel music-hall entertainer near the end of his career and his tether.

Kenneth Branagh in The Entertainer review, Garrick Theatre, London – ‘intense’

Through Archie’s struggles, Osborne conjures a caustic, Strindberg-like view of family life, with youthful idealism opposing the old guard mirroring Britain’s struggles with its identity as it tried to redeem itself a year after the country’s international humiliation in the Suez Crisis.

The UK had invaded Egypt to gain control of the Suez canal, only to be forced by the international community to withdraw. So far, so rotten, but because audiences had lived through it, there was no need for the play to explain all, or indeed any, of that history. But my understanding of that chain of events is hazy to the point of complete obscurity since it occurred before I – like most of today’s theatregoers – was born.

In defence of history in playwriting, I wasn’t around in pre-revolutionary Russia either, but that doesn’t stop me loving The Cherry Orchard. In other words, it’s all in the handling and I’m admitting that The Entertainer is not exactly my favourite play. Indeed, sitting through – sorry, reviewing – one of the three different productions I’ve seen, I typed the line: “X as The Entertainer? Audiences could consider suing under the Trade Descriptions Act.” Mercifully, I deleted it immediately, since vicious snark was not called for.

Yet the point still stands: can it any longer live up to its title and actually entertain? I ask because a new production is about to begin previews at Leicester’s Curve, but this version is no longer about Suez.

“I absolutely love the play: it’s a solid gold classic,” says director Sean O’Connor. “But whenever I see it, I feel the audience isn’t quite getting it. Unless you have an A level in 20th-century history and a knowledge of theatrical lore, it’s lost on you.”

Shifting the play forward in time has turned it into something more audience-friendly than the dying music hall tradition that Archie previously represented

In conversation with the Osborne estate, O’Connor discovered that whenever the play is done in Europe, it’s updated. He promptly began rethinking the play and hit on the parallel of the Falklands War as a more immediate, far more potent, historical backdrop.

“Suez is offstage in the play. Their son is on the way there and is killed but they don’t refer to it by name.” Shifting it forward in time has also turned the social and cultural tone into something more audience-friendly than the dying music hall tradition that Archie has previously represented.

O’Connor spotted the fact that the same month that Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, the Comedy Store opened. This was the era when old-style comedians with routinely sexist, homophobic and racist material suddenly fell from fashion thanks to the arrival of the likes of French and Saunders, Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle. What if the washed-up title character represented that dying breed?

Out went the business of contemporary actors trying and failing to emulate the original Archie of Laurence Olivier – a then shockingly iconoclastic piece of casting that can no longer be repeated – and in came O’Connor’s pal for whom he’d co-created the cheeky chappie character of Alfie Moon on EastEnders: Shane Richie. “He’s made for it. I’ve barely had to rewrite.”

This all adheres, he argues, to Osborne’s intent. “In the 1980s, he said that if he’d written the play then, Archie’s daughter Jean would have been going to Greenham Common.”

This kind of rethink is routine in opera, as when Jonathan Miller famously preserved every hierarchical relationship in Rigoletto when he re-imagined it among the 1950s’ New York mafia for English National Opera. Now I’m wondering: which other plays might benefit from a similar rethink?

The Archive: Does Olivier cast a shadow over Archie Rice?

Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict

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