Fifty years on, this play is celebrated for all sorts of reasons: it marked Laurence Olivier’s coming of age as a great modern actor when he appeared as Archie at the Royal Court; it caught a moment in history of Britain in post-War decline after the Suez crisis; and it suggested cultural sea change in the death of the music hall.
Above all, it encapsulated Osborne’s major theme, one of uncompromising opposition towards anything sham or untruthful, however painful the revelation. I had forgotten, for instance, 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 (“I’m dead behind these eyes”) with the brutality of his domestic conduct (he tells Jean that her mother caught him in bed with Phoebe.) Archie is celebrating twenty years of not paying income tax and faces either a jail sentence or an exile in Canada, much the same sort of thing.
His hurtful monomania spills back into his act – “Don’t clap too hard, we’re all in a very old building” - where he leers at the audience as much as at the nude, full-breasted Britannia (Lindsay Lennon) who stands like a mock patriotic statue behind the stage gauze. Like Olivier, Lindsay, spick and span in a powder blue suit, brings a heartless, automatic polish to his act, effortlessly flicking his cane and making his hat wobble on his head. “Thank God I’m normal,” he sings with bizarre inappropriateness.
The challenge to his own heartlessness comes with the news of his son’s death in a pointless campaign in the Middle East. His other son, Frank (David Dawson) is a milksop replica of a dying showbusiness tradition, while Emma’s faceless fiancé Graham (Jim Creighton) is a representative of the new world that Archie won’t allow to impinge on his memory of the old one.
That world of draft Bass, good reviews by James Agate and strong national identity was never all that good anyway, which is the fundamental, powerful ambivalence in Osborne’s play. Old Billy’s railing against the Poles downstairs, or Archie’s woman-hating, is offset against the modern public decency of a girl like Jean who joins protest marches in Trafalgar Square. No other British dramatist nails these historic schisms in our society better than Osborne, and this wonderful revival confirms The Entertainer’s place in our theatrical heritage. And Lindsay gives the performance of a lifetime.
- Michael Coveney