Review – The Entertainer, Old Vic

Tuesday 6 March 2007

The Entertainer

Just because something is 50 years old doesn’t make it interesting, although it could earn it a place in a museum.

The idea of reviving John Osborne’s The Entertainer at the Old Vic presumably seemed like a good idea at the time but had Mr Spacey or anyone else involved actually bothered reading it recently?

Not that it’s particularly badly written, but boy is it stuck in 1957. Oh, it may well “explore questions about British identity that still resonate today” (we’re quoting the critics in advance here) or “articulate curious pre-echoes of today’s casualties of distant wars” (ditto) but really: who under the age of 30 is going to have more than a fleeting grasp of what a music hall entertainer looked like or in what “war” Britain was engaged at the time? (We’re not pretending to be under 30, by the way.)

And here’s another time-warp moment: this play is presented in three acts, the last one hardly long enough to warrant a second interval; no matter how desperate you were to pee, you would be able to hold on until the curtain comes down. When’s the last time you went to a play in three acts ?

Amazingly the Whingers sat through it all, although a vague acquaintance they bumped into did announce he was leaving “before the third half” (sic). He was hating it, a very angry young man indeed. Actually, the “third half” picked up a bit after he flounced out, but the two events may not be related.

For the Whingers, the evening provided something of an object lesson in how important it is to be well seated. Unlike most of the house – which had been heavily “papered” or “dressed” (as they say in the business) with non-paying bodies to make up the numbers – the Whingers had put their hands in their pockets and shelled out £25.50 each. Although the view from the front of the Llilian Baylis circle was good (and you could hear everyone on the stage – how often can you say that these days?), we sneaked into the stalls after the first of the three halves and occupied seats in the third row. The production really did seem a bit better from down there.

And strangely enough so did the play. Robert Lindsay must have seemed perfect casting as Archie Rice, the right mix of cheeky chappie with more than an edge of darkness – the part could almost have been written for him. And famously, having wowed both sides of the Atlantic in Me and My Girl , he’s even got the song and dance credentials too.

But of course it wasn’t written for him. Laurence Olivier (who at the time was filming The Prince and the Showgirl with Marilyn Monroe) was taken to the Royal Court by Arthur Miller with Monroe in tow (oh to have been in the stalls that night!) to see Osborne’s then cause celebre Look Back in Anger. Miller persuaded Olivier that this was the future of theatre and Osborne was commissioned to write the role for Olivier (which has given the Whingers quite a few ideas; we are intending to commission some truly awful plays – probably mostly by Caryl Churchill – that we can go and whinge about until the cows come home).

But we digress. Lindsay’s performance grew on the Whingers and so did Pam Ferris as his drunken put-upon wife Phoebe. Archie Rice’s seedy comedian is a nasty piece of work, a philanderer, short of money, running from the tax man and struggling to survive with a desperate act in a tacky seaside town revue. His wife drinks a lot, they all drink a lot, and when family tensions rise they argue, or burst into song. They moan about Britain but it’s often tedious and frequently rambles.

The rants about “pansies”, “wogs” and “Poles” (another contemporary resonance? Incidentally, how come there no objectionable racist slang for Polish people?) may be the characters speaking (though one suspects it’s Osborne’s true voice) and would have been how people spoke in 50’s Britain. But even knowing that, it’s pretty offensive stuff. What are they planning to bring back next at the Old Vic ? Love Thy Neighbour? Mind Your Language?

But we digress again. The death throes of the music hall provide an interesting metaphor for the declining British Empire, but the audience is presented with a problem, Lindsay’s ropey routine is necessarily bad, but some of the audience didn’t seem to know whether to laugh and clap his act or not. The Whingers had no such dilemma.

Ensuing events are not too hard to predict but since the Whingers whinge, they don’t spoil, we’ll stay mum. What we see are extended moments from his act which reflect the deteriorating domestic goings-on by getting even worse as the play progresses.

One thing that really puzzled us: what was Osborne really angy about? Despite all the ranting, it was far from clear to us. The decline of the British Empire? The rise of education? The end of the English conscience? The death of music hall? Maybe he was a really big Arthur Lucan fan, who’s to say?

At the final curtain it was gratifying that John Normington as Archie’s father Billy Rice drew the most applause. He was rather good. Unlike Emma Cunliffe who was shockingly dreadful and made every scene she was in feel like a school production (and an under-performing school for people with special needs at that).

The Whingers left the evening with a few questions for Mr Spacey:

  1. Apart from its theatrical curio value, why was The Entertainer revived at all?
  2. Why do the programmes cost £4. It had a bit of info on the play, some very large photographs, and quite a few ads including a full page one for Ronnie Scott’s jazz club (which incidentally is now owned by Old Vic chief exec Sally Greene). Could this be scaled down and cheaper in future, please, Mr Spacey?
  3. Signs in the foyer warned of onstage pyrotechnics? What happened to those? The Whingers saw no fireworks on the stage last night. Literal or otherwise.

30 Responses to “Review – The Entertainer, Old Vic”

  1. Tim Says:

    The reason why Osborne’s “The Entertainer” was revived at the Royal Court Theatre in a staged-reading last year was because the English Stage Company were celebrating 50 years since Osborne’s first play “Look Back In Anger” put them on the theatrical map in 1956.
    The Old Vic Theatre’s current management presumably decided to do a full revival on the strength of the success of Robert Lindsay’s performance on that occasion. However, the Royal Court’s small audience consists mainly of North London leftists, and the theatre itself only survives because it is heavily subsidised by the British taxpayer.
    That is not the case with the Old Vic, which is a 1,000 seater commercial theatre. The current Old Vic management seems unable to grasp that plays which appeal to middle-class North London leftists can only be sustained in venues which receive large annual handouts of the taxpayer’s money.

  2. DeeDee Says:

    OK — we, too, left in the second interval (before the third ‘half’) but only because of railworks underway on our line that evening which meant we had to be on the 22.15 train home — precisely when “The Entertainer” was scheduled to end.

    Yes, it’s clearly a dated show. But watching Lindsay, Ferris and John Normington at work was, for us, really rather wonderful. Having seen the old film, it was also interesting to see how much this necessarily claustrophobic play had been opened up on screen. And in retrospect, the additional plot device in the fim that involved Shirley Anne Field didn’t really work.

    We got off lucky with the programme — as part of our “” package, we received free programmes and drinks.

  3. laura k jones Says:

    i thought the cast pulled together well and that emma cunniffe (you spelt it incorrectly) tackled a difficult straight role (amidst lots of big character roles) with aplomb.

  4. Was it a spelling error or a typing error? You seem very sure Laura.

  5. Billy Rice Says:

    Well, both, clearly. Beware false smugness. It is a very odd site you run, one driven by a queer bitterness and lonely thursday evenings next door to Mother’s bedroom. Join a club. Make friends. Enjoy life. These fireworks are pubescent nonsense from cowering fourth formers. Would you like a job? I have provided my email address – I may know of an opening. Your Mother would be proud. x

  6. Thanks Billy. I assure you there is nothing false about our smugness. We’re enjoying ourselves immensely. Not everyone’s cup of tea to be sure, but in the words of Miss Jean Brodie, “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”

  7. helen Says:

    You are so deluded and sad.The entertainer was fantastic. All the performances were great. I thought Emma Cunniffe was fab.

  8. Deluded? Often. Sad? Never. The joy of whinging is that we have a good time even when the odds are against it. As in this case.

  9. Larry O Says:

    The Entertainer. What a misnomer.
    Save your money, people.

  10. *Sigh* Why don’t people read our reviews before going to see shows?

  11. John B Says:

    I saw The Entertainer last night and thought it was fantastic.Great performances all round.

  12. laura k jones Says:

    the ‘n’ and the ‘l’ are are certainly not next to each other on a standard u.k. keyboard and people often misspell the name cunniffe. so yes, i am absolutely sure that it was a spelling mistake that you made, and not a typing error.

    either way, should you not have proof-read your copy before putting it on the page? or do you pay as little attention to detail as you do to the elegance of your reviews?

  13. No, we don’t have to pay attention to anything if we don’t care to; it’s our blog.

    And yes, it’s true. We pay as little attention to our spelling as we do to the elegance of our reviews. We’re doing this for our own entertainment.

    Oh, and thanks for the keyboard topography tips. Most illuminating. 🙂 We love you really Laura.

    PS: If you think we’re such complete jerks (which we readily admit we are), why did you come back?

  14. John Stanton Says:

    What a crap site you guys run!

  15. That’s true actually, yes, although your use of the word “run” suggests a degree of organisational competence, so thank you for that.

  16. Bob Bury Says:

    We went last night – Friday 13th, so perhaps we should have been expecting disappointment. We had been looking forward to this, as we don’t often get to the theatre.

    I’m old enough to know that I should ignore the reviews and make up my own mind about productions. However, I have never before experienced such a gulf between the critical reviews and my own feelings. It was truly awful. The play itself was trite and badly written (yes, I know they spoke differently in the fifties – I was there – but this sounded like the work of a slightly pretentious sixth former). And the acting was dreadful. Lindsay wasn’t bad, but the others seemed to be strangers to each other and to the stage. Emma Cunliffe was the worst of a bad lot, but they all clearly had trouble knowing what to do with their arms, and when they weren’t actually speaking themselves, they stood frozen in awkward postures, again like schoolkids in the end of term play.

    The only reason I came online tonight was to see if we really were on our own in finding this such a load of ordure. So it was a great relief to find this site on the first page of the google search. We managed to drag ourselves back from the first interval, hoping things would improve, and our initial relief when the play ‘ended’, albeit a bit precipitately, was dashed when we realised there was a third bloody act. For those who stuck it out, I’m pleased to hear that the final act was very short. We left, and had something to eat.

  17. Phew, was beginning to think it was just us. Thanks, Bob.


  18. Richard Jackson Says:

    I went to see the The Entertainer on Sat 14th and thought it was very moving and really well acted by all the cast.Don’t know what you were watching!

  19. Bob Bury Says:

    Strange, isn’t it? We’re clearly in the minority, and everyone else thought it was wonderful. It does seem odd that this play has polarised opinion so much – I’m used to disagreeing with critics, but it’s unusual to get this degree of dissonance between people who all clearly enjoy the theatre. As I say, we went expecting to be moved, and to see an iconic performance. Perhaps our hopes were just too high.

  20. Jake Robson Says:

    I thought the acting in The Entertainer was some superb.Osbourne has written some difficult parts especially for the women but I thought Pam Ferris and Emma Cunniffe were both excellent.Robert Lindsay was fantastic.I had a great night and would encourage anyone to go and see it.

  21. Jake Robson Says:

    Here here

  22. Hattie Says:

    I agree with you Jake.I like your Here here reference too.Osbourne would be proud.

  23. Patrick Says:

    Jeez, glad it wasn’t just us either. I’d write something here but I think most of the points I’d make have been made above. I thought it was unremarkable, unengaging, and we didn’t last until the third Act. Sounds like a lot of people are doing a runner at that point too…

  24. Andy Says:

    An interesting take on the classic. Robert Lindsay and Pam Ferris pleased us greatly.

    We agree with the negative reviews surrounding Emma Cunniffe’s performance. It was difficult to engage with her character; not quite polished. She gave an amateur performance and we were left feeling disappointed. We came away questioning her interpretation and her ability. Her contributions, on the whole, compromised the quality of the scene; one of those annoying sorts that just will not go away.

  25. Thanks, Andy. Nice to know we’re right. This show has generated more comments (and more diversely opinionated ones) than anything else we’ve reviewed. Weird.

  26. Sandra Says:

    I cannot believe that nanyone who enjoys theatre would not be delighted with this remarkable production. Robert Lindsay’s performance was one of the best it has been my privilege to see. It was a masterclass in acting, controlled, daring, charming, showing the humanity and bitterness of the character. Pam Ferris was brave in her painting of the character. The whole cast kept the tempo up. I can’t understand why Emma Cunniffe gets flack, her character is certainly not easy to portray, and indeed the cast were very generous to the two leads. Oh well, can’t please everyone !

  27. simon Says:

    It is one of the best nights I have had in the theatre for a long time.Everyone was so strong and it seemed to be a very generous cast. You needed the normality of Jeans character to make the others work.The night I went it was sold out and the applause at the end showed it was a hit.Robert Lindsay and Pam Ferris were so good..and the rest of the cast were perfectly balanced.Well done to them all.

  28. Roll on Saturday when the damn thing closes and we can all move on.

  29. howard Says:

    Great Show..loved everyone in it

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