31 October 2016

Branagh Theatre Live: ‘The Entertainer’

I have posted here several times about NT Live screenings (most recently Les Liaisons Dangereuses) but not about the similar offerings this year from the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, in partnership with Picturehouse Entertainment. The Winter’s Tale and Romeo and Juliet from the Garrick theatre in London have now been followed by John Osborne’s The Entertainer, broadcast on 27 October.

The Entertainer was Osborne’s second success at the Royal Court Theatre following his Look Back in Anger in 1956. Laurence Olivier, under the influence of Arthur Miller, had asked Osborne for a part in his next play and in 1957 took on the role of Archie Rice, the music hall performer whose best days were behind him. Branagh, although not a protégé of Olivier, seems to have been drawn inexorably to follow his footsteps, starting at drama school when he wrote to Olivier for advice and was advised “to have a bash and hope for the best.” Later for example, in 1990 Branagh directed and took the lead role in a new filming of Henry V, in 2007 he directed an update of Sleuth and in 2011 he played Olivier himself in My Week with Marilyn (set in 1956 when Olivier filmed The Prince and the Showgirl at Pinewood with Monroe, then married to Arthur Miller). Unsurprisingly, in his company’s revival of The Entertainer Branagh has cast himself as Archie.

For a detailed synopsis of this play about the decline of the theatrical Rice family, see Wikipedia, although this production has been restructured into two acts. Was it worth reviving yet again? In many ways the play is dated and increasingly inaccessible – who under 75, or even 80, now remembers the world of music halls (the UK’s equivalent to vaudeville)? And the electrical counter of Woolworth’s is already almost as forgotten as Max Miller. But some of Osborne’s themes, like the grip of Britain’s class system, particularly its elite private schools, remain familiar, and it is still the same gloved hand which waves at us from a golden coach, poignantly described by Archie’s daughter. In an interview with Andrew Marr televised on 23 October, Branagh probably over emphasised the resonances in The Entertainer between post-Brexit Referendum Britain and the country 60 years ago in the humiliating aftermath of the Suez debacle, though he could have mentioned Archie’s dislike of his Polish neighbours. More fundamentally, Branagh was unconvincing as Archie. Energetic for sure, and a master of tap, song and dance, but the well set-up theatrical knight and actor-manager talking on The Marr Show failed to make the transition required to be totally believable as the seedy, end-of-the pier, end-of the-road “has been”, Archie Rice. The older parts are the best ones in The Entertainer: Gawn Grainger as Archie’s dad, Billy, and Greta Scacchi as Phoebe, Archie’s second wife, were first class. But Sophie McShera as Jean looked and sounded too juvenile for a character who turns out to be more worldly and committed as the play went on. The clever set morphed from stage to home to accommodate Osborne’s numerous scene changes with the minimum of interruption.

Three stray points. Firstly, did people really drink neat gin so copiously in the 1950s? Secondly, was Branagh deliberately bringing in what seemed to me like a hint of Tony Hancock’s delivery? Perhaps it was quite unconsciously done, but it’s worth noting that Hancock came from a stage family at the end of the music hall era. Finally, was I alone in finding some of Osborne’s dialogue uncannily like that of Harold Pinter, people speaking past rather than to each other? Pinter began to write for the theatre in 1957, The Birthday Party premiering in 1958.

Sitting in a cinema, this production was an unsatisfactory experience by comparison with the NT Live performances I’d seen previously. Those were free of transmission glitches of the type which interrupted the first Act of The Entertainer, albeit briefly. Much more trying was the projection which utilised “CinemaScope within a 16:9 frame” (as for the transmission of Romeo and Juliet, apparently). No doubt there were good technical reasons for this (the staging and cinema projection technology perhaps) but the resulting image quality at the left and right extremes of the frame was poor. This might not have mattered if the characters had remained together on the centre of the set but Archie seemed to like to address his family and the audience from stage right!

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