Robert Lindsay (pictured) plays veteran comedian Archie Rice - a part immortalised by Laurence Olivier - in the 50th anniversary revival of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, which opened last night (Wednesday 7 March 2007, previews from 23 February) at the Old Vic (See News, 9 May 2006).
Best known for his TV appearances in the likes of Citizen Smith, My Family and Jericho, Lindsay’s stage credits include Me and My Girl, Oliver!, Cyrano de Bergarac, Richard III and Power (his last London stage appearance, at the National in 2003). Sean Holmes’ production also stars John Normington as Archie’s dad Billy Rice, Emma Cunniffe as his daughter Jean, David Dawson as his son Frank, and Pam Ferris as his long-suffering alcoholic wife Phoebe.
Set in the 1950s in a society on the brink of change and at war over the Suez Canal, Osborne's drama follows an embittered and struggling music hall comedian trying to keep a semblance of happiness within his dysfunctional family.
Overnight critics were hugely impressed with Lindsay’s performance in the central role, and admired the way his wittiness and bitterness both spilled over from his act into his family life. They also noted how Osborne’s play was ahead of its time, as, 50 years after it was written, the parallels between life then and life now – with war in the Middle East and families worrying about the safe return of their soldier sons – are startlingly clear.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (5 stars) - “There have been some decent revivals of John Osborne’s second major play, The Entertainer (1957), in recent years…. but none has rivalled the new production by Sean Holmes at the Old Vic, with Robert Lindsay tearing up the stage in the leading role…. I had forgotten… just how powerful is the opening scene, almost an uninterrupted monologue for Archie’s dad, Billy Rice. John Normington, who is superbly frail and beady but perhaps not absolutely convincing as a former star of the halls, sings hymns and berates Archie’s daughter, Jean (Emma Cunniffe), for not having really lived. Archie himself often brings home women while his dilapidated bottle blonde wife Phoebe (magnificently played by Pam Ferris) hits the gin bottle. Lindsay is particularly good at joining up the tawdriness of his act… with the brutality of his domestic conduct…. Spick and span in a powder blue suit, (Lindsay) brings a heartless, automatic polish to his act, effortlessly flicking his cane and making his hat wobble on his head…. This wonderful revival confirms The Entertainer’s place in our theatrical heritage. And Lindsay gives the performance of a lifetime.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (4 stars) – “It is not the fortuitous similarities between now and 1957 that make John Osborne's The Entertainer a great play. It is his ability to create a great central role, superbly taken by Robert Lindsay in this Old Vic revival…. Archie's front-cloth scenes give the play its louche vitality. But, as they progress, they increasingly bleed into the domestic scenes which have an intensity of feeling you rarely find in English drama…. Like Olivier, (Lindsay) clearly rejoices in playing a sad, bad comic…. He also conveys the self-loathing of a man who is aware of his own moral shabbiness…. Pam Ferris is outstanding as Archie's long-suffering wife…. John Normington also lends Archie's father… an extraordinary mix of poker-backed dignity and romanticised nostalgia. And Emma Cunniffe makes something real out of the returning daughter… while David Dawson suggests conscientious objector Frank has inherited something of the Rice's razzy vitality…. You could argue that Osborne's third act, with its sudden onrush of deaths, is cursorily written. But it also strikes a genuine elegiac note for a vanishing England and a disintegrating hero. And modern British drama has few more powerful scenes than the climax in which Archie is left alone on a bare stage to tell one last story as imprisonment beckons.”
Alice Jones in the Independent – “Sidling on to the stage, jaunty bowler hat wobbling and cane spinning, Lindsay doesn't show too many signs of the burden of history…. Eyes glinting with desperation, he is a twitchy, uncomfortable presence, constantly interrupting himself with irritating stage patter and vaudeville gestures. But on odd occasions his voice cracks to reveal a man ‘dead behind the eyes’ and teetering beneath the false jollity and smutty innuendo. Pam Ferris is magnificent as his abused spouse. A mother ruined by gin, she swerves from chattering housewife to belligerent drunk, ever poised on the verge of weepy hysterics…. David Dawson is nicely wound-up as Frank, a damaged child of the Fifties, and John Normington has good lines as Archie's cantankerous old father. Emma Cunniffe's Jean - admittedly a difficult role…. is rather ungainly as the angry young woman, though her interpretation brings home the shocking modernity of Osborne's character…. A society on the brink of change, disillusioned by war and represented by a fading entertainer. It's a nice irony that Lindsay's last role was as the Prime Minister in TV’s The Trial of Tony Blair.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (4 stars ) – “I was caught in a haze of nostalgia, amusement and high emotion. The Entertainer… has dated and matured as well as vintage cheese. In his pale blue suit, with a darker shade of blue jokes in his armoury, Robert Lindsay makes that third-rate song, tap-dance and smutty-patter man, Archie Rice, an irresistible comic turn…. Lindsay almost manages to paper over The Entertainer’s structural flaws, its redundant third act and sentimentalities…. Lindsay falls short, though, when it comes to Archie's underlying sense of anger and despair…. Sean Holmes' over-statuesque production, with designer Anthony Lamble's huge green proscenium curtains and a blown-up photo of a seaside resort, makes it seem as if The Entertainer moves between a music hall stage and the scene of a Fifties drama…. Archie's father Billy, played to comic, plaintive perfection by John Normington, is presented as a far superior sort of music hall artist…. Pam Ferris in vehement emotional form as Archie's lower-class wife, whom he intends to trade in for a much younger model, chatters nervously to her listless step-daughter…. The Entertainer paints an enthralling picture, both grim and comically captivating, of Britain in the grip of escapist fantasy.”
- by Caroline Ansdell