It’s the critic’s job to separate the work from the man - not easy in the case of John Osborne. A spiteful misanthrope, Osborne had numerous affairs over the course of his life, and mistreated most of his wives and lovers. His teenage daughter was cast out at 17. Almost a Gentleman is less an autobiography, more a vendetta in disguise. Osborne’s final days were spent sulking around his country pile, sneering at humanity from behind a large G&T.
What of his work, though? Does anybody recall Time Present? Déjà Vu or The End of Me Old Cigar? Thought not.
Osborne’s reputation rests largely on a suavely menacing appearance in the film Get Carter, and two plays: Look Back in Anger & The Entertainer. Whilst the former has aged badly (Jimmy Porter is too self pitying a character to be angry about anything important), the latter stands up far better; in The Entertainer, Osborne used a larger canvas to explore his peculiar strain of reactionary patriotism.
The play uses the metaphor of the dying music hall tradition – and the shabby career of womanizing ‘comic’ Archie Rice - to comment on Britain’s disappearing Empire and its subsequent domination by the superpower of America. The 1956 Suez crisis provides an engrossing backdrop: The Entertainer remains a singular document of a key moment in British history.
Greg Hersov’s production is a mixed bag. On opening night, the pace was sluggish - the first act a brisk fifty minutes, the second an agonizing ninety. Performances are sadly as inconsistent also. As Billy Rice, David Ryall has some good moments but the character lacks focus, and there’s little sense of any professional rivalry between father and son; Billy’s ultimate decision to betray Archie appears completely arbitrary.
David Schofield is a good actor but doesn’t really capture Archie’s core of self loathing: It’s hard to believe him when he confesses to being dead inside. Schofield does bring an edge to the music hall scenes, however; it’s only in these moments that this production really flies. The best performance comes from Laura Rees as daughter Jean; the terrifying realization that she will never truly understand her father – “We’ve only got ourselves” - is superbly modulated.
One of Archie’s songs is called "Why Should I Care?" and this rather sums up this hit and miss production. Now, who’s going to revive The End of Me Old Cigar?