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

Kenneth Branagh in The Entertainer at the Garrick Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson Kenneth Branagh in The Entertainer at the Garrick Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson
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“Bloody Poles and Irish!” This is the opening line of John Osborne’s 1957 play about the dying embers of the British Empire. It’s a death refracted through the prism of another dying empire: the music halls are in deep decline across Britain, and The Entertainer’s title character Archie Rice is a leading exponent.

Osborne wrote in an introduction to the published text: “The music hall is dying, and with it a significant part of England.” And Archie warns his audience, “Don’t clap too loudly, it’s a very old building.” But since we’re seated in the gorgeously refurbished Garrick Theatre, it’s not a warning we need to heed; instead, the collapsing ruin of a theatre is visible onstage in designer Christopher Oram’s supremely evocative set. The collapsing ruin of Archie’s life and career is painfully charted in Osborne’s enduringly powerful play and in Kenneth Branagh’s haunting, haunted performance.

Following, once again, in the footsteps of Laurence Olivier who created the role in the original Royal Court production – and whose career he has constantly trailed, from his own film version of Henry V to playing Olivier in My Weekend With Marilyn – Branagh brings a sprightly physical agility to the role. There’s also a remorseless sadness to the character who knows that he’s dead behind the eyes. “I’m dead, just like the whole, dumb, shoddy lot out there,” he tells his daughter Jean.

Branagh conveys this defeat of spirit with a profound pathos. Rob Ashford’s hauntingly beautiful, atmospheric production may have a glitzy sheen – there’s an onstage band and a chorus of four dancers – but it doesn’t stint on the overwhelming air of defeat.

That doesn’t make it an easy play to watch, or to enjoy. The title becomes more of an accusation than a promise fulfilled, but it is spellbindingly played, not just by Branagh but also by the ensemble around him: Sophie McShera as his daughter Jean, Jonah Hauer-King as his son Frank, Gawn Grainger as his father Billy, and Greta Scacchi as his devoted second wife Phoebe.

Branagh’s 13-month residency at the Garrick has brought actor-led classical theatre back to the West End with a resounding sense of purpose. There have been misses (Romeo and Juliet) besides the hits (The Winter’s Tale, The Painkiller) and the season now ends on a considerable high – even if the play is actually about the darkest lows a human being can suffer.

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Intense, powerful production of Osborne's evocative portrait of a man – and a nation – in freefall