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Saturday, 7 November 2009

Theatre – The Entertainer – Royal Exchange, Manchester

Star rating – 7/10

If you’re looking for a bundle of laughs type of night out, then this latest revival of John Osbourne’s 1950’s play about a washed up, second rate song and dance man, Archie Rice, is not the one to pick. David Schofield stars here in the role made famous by Laurence Olivier, and although those are very big shoes to fill, he does a fine job of it. Schofield is totally convincing as the wretched Archie, who is trying to convince both himself and the audience that his career is not over and his life is not descending into total disaster.

Very strong support to him is given in the form of Roberta Taylor as Archie’s second wife Pheobe; and David Ryall as his elderly father, Billy Rice, who is himself a former music hall performer. The fraught and alcohol fuelled family discussions between these three and Rice’s daughter Jean are excruciatingly painful to observe, as the characters engage in endless verbal sparring whilst not either saying what they mean or meaning what they say.

In some senses the play does seem dated and of its time, as in the extensive use of pejorative language to describe their Polish neighbours and other immigrant communities in general. But in other ways it could not be more poignant or relevant, such as the fate of Archie’s son Mick who is fighting in the army abroad and whom they are expecting to return home to a hero’s welcome.

Archie’s treatment of the long suffering Phoebe is also painful to watch, although she seems only too ready to forgive him any minor, or major, misdemeanours. The set itself reflects the drabness of the era, and of their lives in particular. The only colour is in Archie’s musical interludes, which Schofield performs admirably, and in Archie’s imagination.

This is a thought provoking, and polished performance, even if the conclusion leaves a somewhat depressed and deflated feeling as the audience departs, owing more to Osbourne’s subject matter, than to another fine production from the Royal Exchange.

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