The Entertainer - Milton Keynes Theatre (atgtickets.com)
John Osborne's play was written when Britain was sharply divided in the midst of the Suez Crisis. Politicians, press and the public had been propelled into heated and often ferocious debate about the country's identity and it's international status. Around the same time the entertainment industry was going through great change with television and cinema taking over from that of the music halls and local community based amusements. Youth culture was developing and fashions were changing.  Osborne set his play against all this creating fading music hall entertainer Archie Rice as his key protaganist. 

Director Sean O'Connor has set this new production against the Falklands War of 1982 when once again the country was going through a conflict thousands of miles away in a place very few people were even aware of. Another extremely contentious event which created huge rifts within society causing great angst for politicians and the public alike. Huge debate in parliament and the press played out publicly whilst private disagreements within families surrounded the justification and ethics of Thatcher's decision. Again there were societal shifts, particularly in the realm of comedy. This was particularly around women, minorities and foreigners. Humour which was mainstream started to be perceived as sexist, and racist and those comedians for whom mother-in-law and 'Johnny foreigner' jokes were central found they had ever dwindling outlets for their particular brand of merry-making and consequently their popularity and livelihoods took a huge hit.

O'Connor has Shane Richie in the challenging role of Archie and my goodnes is Richie just marvellous. Originally played by Olivier, and by Michael Gambon, Corin Redgrave and Kenneth Branagh among others later, it has always attracted, shall we say, 'establishment' actors. Richie came up through the holiday camps and comedy circuit of the eighties before finding a place on primetime tv game shows and Eastenders. Having been impressed by him as the lead in Peter James plays I was keen to see what he would do with this iconic role. He is outstanding and it's clear he is one of our most versatile actors who can bring a wealth of professional and life experience to this particular role. It's surely this that enables him to deliver such a believable and gritty depiction of a man, within a family, within a society who is fast becoming out of step with all. His portrayal of this initially fudamentally rather unpleasant character is first class. At odds with his audience and society but seemingly unable to assimilate and accommodate any changes so stuck in his schtick is he.

But of course Archie is not one-dimensional and the combination of Osbourne's writing, O'Connor's direction and Richie's characterisation mean that the slow unfolding of the layers, traits and further vulnerabilities of Archie are played to perfection. 

The ensemble are Sara Crowe as Pheobe, Archie's second wife, well aware of his numerous infidelities and mounting debts. Crowe is magnificent as the fussy, anxious and seemingly delicate woman who has to cope with Archie but it is her loyalty to all the family that ultimately saves them. Her slow deterioration over one particular scene from sober and calm to drunk and near-hysterical is gripping and never overplayed.
Jean, Archie's daughter from his first marriage, is played with a quieteness and stillness that sets the character slightly apart from the family. She is the odd one out, having been on an anti-war protest whilst her stepbrother Mick is out in the Falklands. Billy (Pipi Donaghy) bring his huge experience to the character and Christopher Bonwell brings a stillness to the quiet character of Frank.

No one could ever say this would ever be a light evening out and it is an extremely challenging watch; at times most uncomfortable and unpleasant. By the interval there was a palpable sense of relief from the unremitting onslaught. The claustrophobic atmosphere, whilst partly created by the intensity of the dialogue (there are almost no moment of silence in the first half), is also created by the staging. This deep and wide MK stage has been reduuced to a single room in a small flat with just enough room for the four characters to move around creating an oppressive atmosphere. Most effective. The second half has such a different feel as tragedy hits the family hard, long-suspected truths are exposed, and almost impossible decisions must be made. Unlike the first half there are moments of absolute stillness and reflection.  As Archie shuffles front to sing, dance and joke in the final scene the pathos is tangible and the despair and sadness are utterly absorbing. 

A magnificent production. 

The Entertainer plays MK Theatre until Saturday 7th September
Tickets from https://www.atgtickets.com/times/the-entertainer/milton-keynes-theatre/2019-09-04

Box office 0844 871 7615 booking fee applies