BWW Interview: Shane Richie Talks THE ENTERTAINER
Known to audiences as Alfie Moon from EastEnders, Shane Richie recently playing Hugo/Loco Chanelle in the West End's Everybody's Talking About Jamie, and can currently be found touring the UK as Archie Rice in John Osborne's The Entertainer.
What excites you about working in theatre compared to television?
I'm fortunate at the moment: I get to play with both genres. After being in EastEnders in 2002-2005, I couldn't wait to get back to theatre - you work a muscle that doesn't get used in television. In front of a live audience, there's no safety net and there's no starting again. I enjoy the adrenalin. With television you have the chance to get it right, but in live theatre you have to try again the next night.
It seems apt that The Entertainer is touring given the UK's history of seaside resorts and blue-coat performers. What research did you do for the role?
Had I been doing the Olivier version, I would have watched the film, but our version is so far removed from the original. The story is the same, but the dialogue has been modified to fit the 80s setting. The experience I draw from is that my dad ran clubs in London, so I used to get first-hand experience of watching comics make jokes about racism and sexism and being homophobic. I spent a lot of time as a child at holiday camps, and when I was younger and out of work as an actor I worked as a blue coat at Pontins for a couple of seasons.
When I became a stand-up comic in my late teens, I saw figures like Archie Rice going out and doing old material. I tried my own, new material and it fell on deaf ears. The upper hand I have is that I've done stand-up and I know what it's like to die a death, to do a private function where kids are doing knee slides in front of you. I watched some old episodes of old comedians and someone said my Archie is a cross between Bernard Manning, Frankie Howerd and Bruce Forsyth, which I'll take!
Who do you think of when defining an 'entertainer'?
I always loved Bobby Darin, who my parents used to watch. You think of Bruce Forsyth when you think of the song and dance man. Then you think of Billy Dainty and the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. I loved Danny Kate too. All the older actors from the 1950s and 1960s who could sing, dance and were funny. They also all had tragic stories and on stage they felt the warmth and love.
I remember being called an entertainer in the 1980s and it was like a dirty word. When I was out of work, I was an entertainer, but I wanted to be an actor. I couldn't care less now about what people of think of me - I know who I am.
Do you think we've lost that older type of performer?
Television is no longer a vehicle for those types. People don't rush home to watch TV now, unless it's for Strictly or Bake Off. People don't sit on a Sunday with their dinners on their laps watching omnibus EastEnders anymore. TV has such a voracious appetite now. Reality TV has passed me by. Being called a celebrity was a badge of honour in the 1980s, but now it's a dirty word. Now, I don't get it.
You've described Archie Rice as "someone left behind" - can you develop this a little?
I remember in the 1980s hearing about comedy store players and the venues being above pubs. Ben Elton, Jeremy Hardy, French and Saunders. It's literally changed: there was a generation of audiences who turned their backs on that kind of humour. When satirical shows like Spitting Image emerged, which was about tearing down the pedestal, you could see it changing overnight. The audiences got smaller and smaller, and that's where Archie is.
What symbolism does the music hall embody?
They're museum pieces now, aren't they? My manager loves Wilton's Music Hall. The audiences who loved it back in the day are gone. Just after the war, that was where people went for entertainment. Then the halls became bingo halls and working men's clubs all started emerging. But now both are dying out and lots of the pubs and clubs are disappearing. People have access to comedy now on their phones and laptops. You have to wonder for how much longer comedians will sell out arenas when you can save the £60 ticket price and have it in front of you.
Do you see there being an answer to this problem? Should we be like Archie Rice and hope there'll always be a live audience?
I don't know. Theatre producers are thinking about money. Film and TV companies have theatrical departments, whilst lots of theatres have shows coming to them that are adaptations of well-known films. People want to know what they're getting.
If The Entertainer is posing a question to the audience, what is it?
Today's audience were older and they were laughing out loud. Most audiences drop their heads now. I don't know whether people are laughing at or with me, but this play turns a mirror and asks us if we were once like this, or if we're still like this.
What's happening politically, culturally and socially in the country - The Entertainer feels so relevant. When you go so far left, you give the right ammunition. It's about trying to get that balance. Not everyone will be happy, and you keep people moderately upset, but not angry. Getting that balance where people are annoyed but still happy is what Osborne achieves.
You'll be going on tour again next year with Everybody's Talking About Jamie - why has that show been such a success?
If you're between the ages of 12 and 18, and if you want to learn how to be fearless, and learn how to fly your own personal flag, it's the show for you. I have five children between the ages of 31 and eight, and when they saw it they all took their own message away. It's about diversity, daring to be different and not being frightened. It's so removed from The Entertainer - from a drag queen to a washed-up comedian.
Why are music and comedy important?
Music can move people and reminds you of better and worse times. Comedy at the moment is on dangerous grounds. It's changed and you have to be careful. I fear for comics going out and having to watch every word. Everybody wants to be upset now; every faceless coward on social media has been given a voice, and people want to be angry to validate their own lives.
Jack Whitehall has said that he's already made the joke that will end his career - would you agree with that sentiment?
Thank god no one was around to record my stand-up. I would be crucified now. The stuff I used to do about growing up, sex, going through divorce, drugs... The worse they can do now is show an old clip of Alfie Moon.
Photograph credit: Helen Murray