by John Osborne
June 2nd - 9th, 2001
The Tower Theatre Company performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury
Director : Allan Stronach
Those of us in that waning band of brothers who were undergraduates (the very word is like a knell in 1956 have special cause to remember John Osborne's arrival on the theatrical scene in Look Back In Anger. Cambridge Arts Theatre received a slightly flat touring production where, duffel-coated and earnest, we made first assessment of the new wave before rushing up to Town to catch The Crucible, Miller's latest excitement, at the Royal Court.
En route to lectures we would pass the shabby and decaying New Theatre, then on its last legs with just such clapped-out Nude Varieties as The Entertainer depicts. Archie Rice's "Rock'n'Roll New Look" is dead on target : the rows of empty seats echoed to third-rate comedians pleading with college rugger roughs in the boxes, who would mercilessly barrack both him and the tatty tableaux baring all - but motionless, as required by the Lord Chamberlain's Office.
This faded theatrical ambience was enhanced in Allan Stronach's production by Andrew Reeves' evocative set, vividly realised by Jo Staples' playbill backdrop, bare boards, and all the passing splendour of the (then) uncherished Victorian theatre. Archie's set pieces were framed by crimson tabs and ancient lighting battens, a period spectacle lit with artful warmth by Nick Insley in sharp contrast to the coldness of the domestic scene. This was played upstage and allowed for neat transition. Jill Batty's eye for persuasive Fifties costumes added the visual finish.
In considering The Entertainer it's hard to detach Osborne's textual Archie from Laurence Olivier's iconographic creation, whether in the flesh, the cinema, or on video.
One recurring suprise, however, is that the rôle of Archie's father Billy is considerably the bigger and carries much of the dramatic impetus. New member Geoff Braman's characterisation gave him the trim carriage and self-esteem that Osborne calls for. The old boy is also called upon to convey warmth and charm : how then should one deal with his non-stop whinges and appalling bigotry?
A superficial, bluff kind of humour, sharply at odds with the actual matter, is needed to lessen the monotony. What this actor did make us aware of was the threadbare quality of a certain kind of patriotism, as well as the impossibility of turning back the clock.
It's said that Osborne brought to the character of Archie the kind of desolation he had found in Macbeth. Certainly the part makes considerable technical and emotional demands. To succeed at playing failure is no mean feat : the actor is required to be magnetic while playing a deadbeat!
Colin Dent's performance lacked the initial ingredient in his first appearance "on stage" but gained in confidence thereafter. Though a second-rate turn, Archie in a family tradition knows the drill well enough, for instance his cane is a suggestive, dandified prop, never a mere walking-stick.
Even with minimal audience engagement this Archie needed more variety of voice and tempo. Oddly, one of his key recollections, "the most moving thing [he] ever heard" - his unforgettable memory of "some Negresses singing in a bar" - was cut (as was also the nude Britannia tableau). In the domestic scenes the actor was more assured, conveying the self-esteem and disgust that finally finishes him.
As his ineffectual, faded wife Phoebe Sheila Burbidge focussed effectively on the weariness and unspoken presentiments, all veiled in irrelevant chatter over a subtext of domestic tension and fears for her son in Suez. Her outpouring of anger when she discovers that Billy has cut into the celebratory cake intended for Mick, and Billy's understated but all too evident shame, were memorable.
The remaining parts are less developed. Faye Barker presented the essentially good-natured daughter Jean with a sense of tactfully papering over the family cracks; Dominic Ward was convincing in his varying responses to the emotional demands made on him; and Tom Tillery and Martin Jackson made effective brief appearances as Archie's affluent brother and detached son-in-law. Charlie, the attenuated chef d'orchestre (Guy Saunders) compensated for being the butt of Archie's humour by staying firmly if not fiercely in charge of his rôle.
Director Allan Stronach kept the action moving along but some of the production's drift and detail seemed unfocussed. For example, the essentially conservative Anglophile Billy would surely sing his hymns in the Victorian settings of Hymns Ancient and Modern rather than the American Episcopalian ones.
There is a downbeat quality in The Entertainer which makes it difficult to identify any consistent theme. What does it have to engage our attention today if it is not to seem just an outdated Fifties museum piece? "Nobody gives a damn about anything" (Archie) and "Why do people like us still sit here?" Perhaps this is the essence we should take to heart in the light of the recent election - whatever our party loyalties, whether as voters or abstainers.