The last time we saw Sir Kenneth Branagh on stage at The Garrick, he was hamming it up James Bond-style as a slick assassin who gets caught up in Rob Brydon’s maladroit family dramas in The Painkiller. That ode to slapstick was number three in a set of five plays that the actor and director’s theatre company has produced in its year-long residency on the Charing Cross Road, which culminates with Branagh pitching a wholly different note in John Osborne’s The Entertainer.
Humour still has its place (indeed, Branagh has apparently been taking tips on the art of stand-up from Brydon for this production), but the emphasis is on the flip side of it – observing from the comic’s point of view once the laughing has stopped. In a role immortalized by Laurence Olivier, Branagh plays Archie Rice, a washed-up music hall entertainer battling to hold everything together as his latest tour fails to sell, the bailiffs threaten to close in and his family struggles to contend with the wearisome – and divisive – political climate.
Set during the Suez Crisis of the Fifties, the fall of the British Empire is supposed to be somewhat mirrored in the collapse of the music hall industry (Archie’s power crumbling around him like his country’s). Young and old are at loggerheads about stony broke Britain and our rightful place on the world stage, with politicians only exacerbating the general tension by playing it fast and loose with the facts. Sound familiar? It may have been sixty years ago, but there are conversations and frictions that current audiences will appreciate all too well.
And one of those discussions ensues when it transpires that Archie’s good-as-gold daughter Jean (Sophie McShera) joined a peace rally in Trafalgar Square, in protest against then Prime Minster Anthony Eden; the prospect of her radicalization strikes fear into a family already reeling from the imprisonment of one son for conscientious objection and another sent off to fight in the same conflict in Egypt. Sat bolshily atop the family hierarchy is Archie’s dad Billy (Gawn Grainger), a retired performer who does not mind proffering an irascible opinion on the decisions of those around him. He is a cantankerous figure, there’s no doubt about it, but Grainger’s unfussy presentation gets straight to the point and, ultimately, affords the character perhaps more respect than any other, despite the abrasive surface.
Greta Scacchi is another big presence as Archie’s second wife Phoebe, a lady of pride perennially plagued by insecurity at her own looks and intelligence, and thus partial to a spot of gin – advisably or not. Scacchi makes a forceful match for both Grainger and Branagh, the trio imbuing the stage with real energy when all together. Branagh himself must not be denied praise for this role. The constant comparisons with Olivier, though inherently flattering, must become tedious and Branagh has very much his own style, his own charisma, his own voice with which he brings Archie Rice to life. And this he does with tragic charm.
Our introduction to him comes right at the beginning, in a prologue long before Archie actually enters, in which he appears in the solitary spotlight of a blacked-out stage, performing the heavy rhythms of a slow tap routine. With his back to the audience and a towel around his neck, it is as though we are watching the pensive rehearsal of a lonely entertainer stripped of the glitz and glitter we are later dazzled with in his full routines. The sombre start forces us to look further than the brash performer we see later. Archie is a fiendishly complicated character, and Branagh inhabits every aspect; from the camp seafront entertainer (who bears a startling resemblance to Eddie Izzard with his red lippie on), the ebullient father, the philandering husband, the over-animated family peace-keeper. He is warm and loving whilst being tragically comic, cruel and crude. Seeing all these sides – even the ugly ones – gives us a genuine sense of who the man is.
The let-down comes from the younger performers, whose theatrical skill sadly doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny it inevitably has to face in the glare of their more seasoned co-stars. Jonah Hauer-King makes son Frank seem temperate and kind but his diction isn’t particularly clear and he never makes a significant impact. McShera simply struggles to project her voice, opting instead to shout every line in order to be heard. There are a lot of arguments in this show, granted, but McShera seems to possess one volume only, which is very whiny on the ears and prevents her from giving Jean any nuance. One gets the feeling that Jean could be the quiet heroine of this – the voice of reason, the one we could all relate to who sees beyond her family’s muddled sets of opinions, but we don’t get to see any of that with McShera, who just stares blankly at their goings on. She shows a hint of comedic ability, which will hopefully develop in time, but does not compensate here.
There is an all too fleeting appearance from Crispin Letts as Archie’s brother Bill and a pretty set of dancers for Archie’s flashy numbers, lest we get bogged down by domestic quarrels. The Entertainer has both pizazz and gloom, creating moments of laughter and many more of reflection – it strikes too many nerves for you to leave the theatre unaffected.
The Entertainer at The Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Rd, London WC2H 0HH, until 12th November 2016. For more information and tickets please visit the website.