The Entertainer was written back in the 1950s when the country was in the grip of the Suez Crisis, and with parliament unable to agree on a stand point. Society too was changing, immigration was at a high and popular views and cultures were being challenged, for comedians and variety artistes their stock material and audiences were drying up.
The current UK touring version of The Entertainer, Directed by Sean O’Connor, has been set in 1982, a time not dissimilar – mid Falklands conflict, Thatcherism dividing the nation, and yet another shift in comedic culture with the rapid growth of home entertainment seeing the demise of the stand-up acts of the late 70s and early 80s.
The show follows the career demise of Archie Rice, played by Shane Richie, an old-style musical hall entertainer, who’s home life is as unstable as his stage act. Rice’s life is in turmoil, his bitterness to the show business world that has fallen out of love with him being a constant thorn. His reliance on two crutches to deal with his home life, his humour and alcohol, both never helping resolve situations.
His daughter Jean (Diana Vickers) has come home escaping a row with her fiancé that has most likely ended her engagement. The character flows through the play, constantly sniping between her step mother, Phoebe and Billy, Archie’s dad; but only gains a degree of personality when she stands up to her father. Diana Vickers does well with what little character she has to play with in Jean, her head to head with her father being the highlight.
Archie’s dad, a retired show business performer brings a mix of relief and shock with his views on life; very much the views of his generation in the 80s. Billy is the Alf Garnett character in the proceedings. Pip Donaghy brings a level of endearment that means you can’t help but laugh despite the lack of political correctness of his script.
His second wife, understudied by Alice Osmanski, is a down-trodden housewife, worried for her son held hostage in the conflict, who turns her eye to her husband’s carry ons, through blind love and more alcohol! Her one support being her other son Frank (Christopher Bonwell). Alice played a convincing part, very much the hysterical alcoholic.
In fact, alcohol is the staple diet of the whole family, they move through the whole play with drinks constantly being poured. A reflection on the numbing effect it can have on reality.
In playing Rice, Shane brings true life to his character, working tirelessly, drawing on his experience as a Blue Coat and Stand up, knowing how to work the audience. Delivering comedy is always a challenge, whether it be good comedy or bad comedy, timing is everything; in this respect Richie delivers some very bad comedy with perfect precision; he delivers the demise of Rice excellently.
Judging audience reactions, it’s clear this show will divide opinion. The dated jokes, the lack of story, the perpetual family bickering for many will not feel like entertainment, however, there will many who can relate to these things and empathise with the characters. Just don’t go expecting to come out with a happy warm feeling inside.
The Entertainer is at Wolverhampton Grand until Saturday 12th October before continuing its UK Tour.