Originally played against the backdrop of the Suez Crisis in 1956, John Osborne’s The Entertainer used the bickering family of fading showman Archie Rice as a metaphor for a rapidly changing Britain.
In this production, director Sean O’Connor shifts the story forward 25 years to an era dominated by the Falklands War. Archie is now an old-school variety act in an age when alternative comedy was challenging the establishment.
It’s a canny twist, altering the context of the play without affecting its power. As a result, this is an Archie Rice that Shane Richie was destined to play.
An exceptionally versatile performer, Richie’s early career was rooted in variety but his dramatic chops have long been established thanks to his role on EastEnders. Archie Rice allows Richie to draw on both talents and the result is harrowing in its despondency. There’s a fear that if he stops with the patter, he’d be forced to confront the bleak reality of his life.
Expertly pitched as Richie’s anti-hero is, it’s also a thoroughly generous performance, drawing equally resonant turns from Sara Crowe as his long-suffering wife Phoebe and Pip Donaghy as the crusty Billy, and Diana Vickers and Christopher Bonwell as step-siblings Jean and Frank. Director O’Connor uses the whole ensemble to paint a vivid picture of socio-political change through this fracturing family.
Some of the visual elements pointing to the 1980s may be overplayed but otherwise this is a prescient reminder not only of the veracity of Osborne’s writing but also how press and government can manipulate a nation.