Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

archie Rice

Phil Reynolds as Archie Rice

The Entertainer

The Loft Theatre Company, Leamington


THE LOFT is a company that has long established its credibility with a repertoire that is not just diverting or amusing, but often enough acutely challenging.

Works like the plays of O’Casey, or ones that need closely observed teamwork like Under Milk Wood, let alone Equus, Pravda, or Breaking the Code, let alone Chekhov (The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya) call for acting of real stature: the same could be said for A View from the Bridge, or indeed All My Sons, which the theatre will stage early next year.

The Entertainer (1957), by no means an easy play to stage, is widely claimed to be John Osborne’s finest play, despite the claims of Look Back in Anger (just a year earlier), of Luther, Inadmissable Evidence or A Patriot for Me. So, it’s puzzling to have to say that there were scenes wheBillyre this generally gifted staging sagged: and nowhere more than the opening scene, which without an input from the notorious Olivier character Archie Rice (Phil Reynolds) seemed to lack pace and lack much meaning too.

The idea, presumably, is to underline the banality of family life, to which even the fabulous entertainer Billy Rice (Steve Smith), now retired, mundanely subscribes.

Archie (Phil Reynolds) makes a point to Jean, played by Kate Brash

The lack of electricity was palpable, and clearly Director William Wilkinson, responsible for many of the Loft’s major successes, decided to go for a special form of ennui, a bit like Sickert’s famous picture: a tedium from which the characters seem almost wilfully unwilling to emerge.

Until, that is, the evening’s most successful performer gets going. Wendy Morris, a Loft regular who is also well known to Talisman audiences, has as Phoebe Rice no less than three major speeches – one wants to say soliloquys, for that’s what they amount to, but they have an onstage audience to witness them.

She it is who best expresses the frustration at the infuriating domestic routine, at the unending moans and grumbles of the now grim old man reminiscing about Gallipoli, at the financial worries that continually beset them as Archie’s fortunes – and indeed those of the entire music hall genre – dip and fade; at the complete inability of her hyperactive husband to face up to facts and address a frighteningly uncertain future.

Phoebe’s long exchange with daughter Jean (Kate Brash) produces some vivid acting: Jean is a bit inept, a bit of an empty role, so it is Phoebe – with a good deal of common sense – who makes the running. Even more this is the case in another sequence where Phoebe positively erupts: she calls a spade a spade, she takes on the damnable men single-handed, and more or less wipes the floor with them. The outbursts also bring tears, and her growing exhaustion and collapse from sheer frustration were marvellously done. We felt for Phoebe, and Morris better than anyone showed us the virtual anguish and infuriation that living such a precarious and unpredictable life inflicts on those trying to achieve some kind of normality.Phoebe

Steve Smith’s portrayal of Billy, the one-time stage hit, was strikingly subdued. He buries himself in the newspaper and looks up only to fire darts at one or other of the cast. Smith made of him, if not a venomous character, certainly a begrudging one. His shuffle, and gentle mutterings almost lull one (as well as him) to sleep.

Phoebe Rice, played by Wendy Morris who is exhausted by the frustration of her life of tedious struggle.

 He has some nice asides – dated phrases trip from his (or Archie’s) tongue, along the lines of ‘pansy boy’, ‘the bug house round the corner’ (doubtless a forerunner of ‘flea-pit’), ‘Hold your noise’. There is no hint of the great entertainer that Billy once was. Is it to Osborne we owe this decidedly taciturn figure? Doubtless. For paradoxically, Smith is one of the most exciting, energising stage directors the Loft is blessed with.

What the play – and one must say, William Wilkinson’s production too – badly wants is more oomph. And one hopes to find it with the (long-delayed) first appearance of Archie. Here, surely, will come the Olivier-like maliciousness, the Ken Dodd-like flair, the dazzling build-up of pace that has made Archie – well, hitherto – a hit treading the boards. Phil Reynolds is invariably a glorious performer, and best of all, a fabulous comedian. Yet the pirouettes with cane and bowler hat seemed a little sub fusc. Those fabulous, mischievous eyes that are a Reynolds speciality only really flashed their impudent sidelong glass in his last front of curtain appearance. His recent turnout as Joxer in Juno and the Paycock was laden with such wayward glances. What a delight it might seem to have that brilliant portrayal here. But – a short tap dance aside – (would there had been more) Archie lacked that wonderful variety and bamboozling and un-putdownability that once made him live up to his father.

So - a deuced good show, but possibly not quite a triumph. To 15-10-16

Roderic Dunnett


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