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The Kenneth Branagh West End season ends with John Osborne bitter classic
Did Kenneth Branagh predict Brexit? When Sir Ken announced his year-long stint at the Garrick in April 2015, even the Tories would have laughed if you’d said they’d win a parliamentary majority the following month, while the rancorous EU referendum campaign was just a stupid twinkle in David Cameron’s stupid eye.
Now the final piece of programming in the season, Osborne’s second play ‘The Entertainer’, seems to all-too-vividly capture the unpleasantness of the last few months. Written in 1957 as a vehicle for Branagh’s hero Laurence Olivier, it tells the story of failing music hall entertainer Archie Rice – last of a once-great line of performers – as he boozily tears his family apart through a combination of nihilism, bitterness, prejudice and a total lack of care about the consequences of his actions. Meanwhile, in the background, there’s turmoil in the Middle East as the Suez crisis rages to its disastrous conclusion. Pretty canny timing, right?
Well yes, but at the same time Osborne was so acutely keyed into a certain type of futile, provincial British nastiness that ‘The Entertainer’ will probably always seem somewhat relevant.
Especially when you’ve got such a cracking turn from Branagh himself, giving easily his best performance of the season. His Archie is an often understated, melancholy everyman, whose viler utterances are generally booze-induced, and who seems beset not so much with nastiness as total weariness. He is spiritually exhausted – perhaps because of the war, perhaps because of his declining trade – and it has left him numb and divorced from the consequences of his actions. I felt more pity for him than I’d expected, especially in the scene where he slurringly tells his upstart daughter Jean about a black singer who floored him in Toronto and made him feel his work was soulless. But that work is also admirable in its way: Branagh/Archie gives slick patter and mean tap moves, impressive relics of yesteryear.
A notable absentee is John Hurt, who was scheduled to play Archie’s dad Billy but dropped out on doctor’s orders. It’s hard to shake a wistfulness at what might have been, but his replacement Gawn Grainger is excellent as a semi-decent relic from the Edwardian era unsettled by the younger generation. And Greta Scacchi is great as Archie’s outwardly vapid, inwardly terrified wife Phoebe.
It doesn’t quite hit home fully. As with much of the Branagh season, I wish it had been directed by somebody other than his pal Rob Ashford. His production has a lavish Christopher Oram set – a derelict music hall – that is very impressive but overpowers the play somewhat. The domestic drama and Archie’s song-and-dance routines appear to bleed into one, like it’s all one giant routine, taking away some of the rawness.
If it doesn’t quite channel the full force of Osborne’s bile, it’s probably the strongest production of a slightly shaky season, finally giving us the Branagh acting tour de force we’ve been holding out for.