BWW Review: THE ENTERTAINER, Garrick Theatre, 30 August 2016

The latest 2016 state-of-the-nation play has arrived - from 1957. There's the Brexit-ish granddad mired in corrosive nostalgia, the forward-looking granddaughter joining anti-establishment protests in Trafalgar Square, tax dodging, a crisis of British identity, and chaos in the Middle East.

The brilliance of John Osborne's play is to find such an appropriately theatrical metaphor, with societal turbulence mirrored by the dying days of music hall. Our bridge is the failed vaudevillian Archie Rice, spouting terrible jokes before a dwindling audience who have only come to see the 'nudes', before returning to his warring family, who act as a microcosm of post-Suez, post-imperial Britain.

It's a part famously created by Sir Laurence Olivier, and stepping into his tap shoes is the man whose career has so often invited comparison (when he wasn't directly playing him in film My Week with Marilyn): Kenneth Branagh, finishing his company's Garrick residency by taking on the iconic central role.

Branagh's is a bravura song and dance performance, but almost too slick for third-rate hoofer Archie. His tapping is assured, his singing decent, and he eagerly embraces the deliberately terrible patter, soggy with innuendo. What's missing is the palpable sheen of desperation, the manic drive of someone for whom the spotlight is not a bonus, but a harrowing addiction, even though he has just enough self-awareness to realise his talent isn't equal to it.

Nor is his Archie quite the dangerous, sleazy bastard everyone refers to - the callous womaniser, the calculating leech, the lifelong performer slowly losing his grasp on his humanity. Arch but revealing songs such as "Thank God I'm Normal" or quips like "I've taken my glasses off - I didn't want to see you suffering" point to this looming existential crisis, but there are only glimmers of it in Branagh's rather too restrained take. His claim that he's "dead behind the eyes" rings hollow, and news of a death wrings a spiritual from him that's tremulous but still controlled.

Rob Ashford's production elides the distinction between reality and artifice, to mixed effect. It's a fluid, dreamlike rendering, with Archie's performances bleeding into his home life - in presentation and in the recurring punch line cadence of his speech - but also slightly muddles Osborne's point about the dangers of clinging to a world that no longer exists, rather than facing the one that does. Along with a collection of overly glamorous, stick-thin chorus girls, the stage becomes an attractive escape rather than a painted howl of despair.

The gin-soaked domestic scenes are more effective. Greta Scacchi is superb as Archie's blowsy, garrulous, long-suffering second wife, who left school at 12 and longs for financial security, as is Gawn Grainger as Archie's raging dad Billy, a genuine star of the Edwardian halls who's now allergic to progress, belligerently equating it with irreversible national decline.

As Archie's son Frank, a conscientious objector, Jonah Hauer-King produces a white-hot anger at the betrayal of his generation (his brother is abroad fighting in a pointless war waged by older men). Sophie McShera's left-leaning Jean is passionate but one-note, tending towards shrill in her efforts to confront her relatives with their hypocrisy.

Those relationships - and crucial class and educational distinctions - could be clearer, but the ensemble captures well the tendency of families in close quarters to hurtle into feuds over something as minor as the pilfering of a cake.

Christopher Oram's majestic set places them against the backdrop of an evocative Yorkshire Coast railway poster, the colourful romanticism contrasting with the artfully peeling paint, crumbling ceiling and dingy furniture - a symphony of fading grandeur. There's clever mirroring of the Garrick's real structure for the vaudeville sequences, steeping the piece in our own theatrical history.

However, the most arresting moment of the evening comes right at the start, as Branagh's Archie stands alone in the spotlight, his crisp taps building into an insistent rhythm echoed by the call and response of the ghostly dancers around him. The poignancy of his commitment to something that has already gone is never quite recaptured, in a production constantly jabbing at you with ideas and stylish tableaux, yet lacking that killer emotional blow. It entertains, but does not make us weep.

The Entertainer is at the Garrick Theatre until 12 November, with a live cinema broadcast on 27 October

Picture credit: Johan Persson

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From This Author Marianka Swain