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:
- Apart from its theatrical curio value, why was The Entertainer revived at all?
- 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?
- 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.