Archie Rice is the name,

let me entertain you . . . 

The Entertainer

Lichfield Garrick Studio

*****

WITH British soldiers dying in the Middle East, a Prime Minister with plummeting popularity and general mistrust of politicians running through the play, Lichfield Garrick Rep's production of The Entertainer could have been written last week instead of 1957.

It is set during the Suez crisis of 1956 but more than half a century on it is still a play for today which is either a tribute to writer John Osborne's clairvoyant powers or a condemnation of the world in which we live.

The Entertainer is Archie Rice, a cocky, Jack-the-lad, quip for everything  comic with worn out routines and an eye – and more – for the ladies. The excellent John Ashton (above) plays the part with subtlety as we see the growing pathos of a performer whose act and world are falling apart.

His father, Billy, played deftly by Rugeley actor and playwright Gerry Hinks (right), was something Archie once dreamed of becoming. He was a big music hall star. Now though Billy has reached an age where he lives on memories and reflects on the way the world is changing for the worse, in his mind. He was 19, he tells us before he saw a women's leg and at 20 was married with a child.

Lyn Blakley (below) is superb as Archie's long suffering second wife Phoebe who puts up with her husband's many infidelities on the basis that Archie is a man and “it's more important to them”.

CONSTANT TORRENTS 

Phoebe, who worries about her son Mick, away fighting in Egypt, speaks in constant torrents, gushes of words that change direction on a whim with hardly a breath and no gap for answers. Blakley brings out the sadness, insecurity and emptiness of her life visibly wearying as the problems mount with all the emotion and frustration flooding out over Mick's 30 bob homecoming cake.

Living with the trio is Archie's other son Frank, who has just spent six months in jail for refusing to be conscripted – unlike his brother Mick. Rob Pass, continuing a Lichfield Rep tradition of giving a newcomer a chance, grabs the opportunity with both hands to show much promise in his first professional role.

Into their less than cosy existence comes Jean, Archie's daughter from his first marriage, returning home for a visit after a falling out with her fiancée after she attended an anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square. Emily Pennant-Rea (seen below with Rob Pass) plays the role with both panache and those clipped Celia Johnson tones of the well bred 1950s London lady which sets her apart from her more rough and ready family.

TERMINAL DECLINE

Osborne used the terminal decline of the music hall, of Archie and comics like him and even a decline in standards as a theatrical metaphor for the fall of the British Empire and the end of a way of life and it says much for his writing and observation skills that much remains relevant today in a play which hardly shows it age half a century on.

The rest of the family have put up with Archie for years but as the play moves on we find that Archie himself is putting up with Archie as we learn of his fears, bitterness and self loathing. Jean, a link to a past life - her mother caught him in bed with Phoebe - is the only one he can open up to, telling her how the smiles and cheery chappie he becomes when he walks on stage - or anywhere - is just an act. 

“I don't care about anything, not even women and draught Bass.”

Then he admits that he feels nothing for the audience and they feel nothing for him – which must be a tragedy for any performer. 

“I'm dead behind these eyes. I don't feel a thing and neither do they (the audience). We are as dead as each other.”

Archie's patter is dated at its best but as his world falls apart so does his act as we watch its final death throes.

The play has a strong cast and moves at a cracking pace which is a tribute to director Andrew Hall and is helped by an imaginative set, courtesy of designer John Brooking, which provides an all-in-one sitting room and theatre stage using every inch of the the height of the Studio which cuts out a lot of scene changes as the action constantly switches between home and footlights. The set even stands in as a cemetery - now there is flexibility.

MODERN CLASSICS

Hall was also responsible for last year's autumn Rep production, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which went on to appear in the West End. The two productions are similar in that they are both plays that are well known, modern classics which have stood the test of time, yet are probably known by many more people than have actually seen them.

But any doubts that last year's highly praised production would not be matched have been dispelled by the Rice family and Hall and producer Tom Roberts seem to have the seeds of an autumn tradition on their  hands. The trick now facing them is to make it three in a row.

Incidentally Tracey Childs and Mark Farelly, Martha and Nick, from last year's Virginia Woolf, were in the audience for the Press night.

To 31-10-09. 

ROGER CLARKE 

The Entertainer  The Producer The Cast Suez The director The Comic

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