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The Entertainer

The Oxford Times, 24th May 1996, Chris Gray

The seedy, boozy, bickering family at the centre of John Osborne’s The Entertainer have lost little of their power to shock nearly 40 years after their first appearance. If the play’s nudity – it offered in 1957, the first bare bosom on the Oxford stage – scarcely raises an eyebrow now, we still wince at the cruelties the Rices dish out to each other.

Director Stephen Rayne’s impeccably staged revival at the Watermill Theatre, near Newbury, features a superb performance by Michael Pennington, tap-dancing in the footsteps of another great Shakespearean actor, Laurence Olivier, as the terrifying Archie Rice.

A has-been (if he ever was) in the fading world of music hall, Rice struggles on, telling limp, lewd jokes to dwindling audiences as compere of a soft-core stage porn show. When he is not performing, propping up a bar or priapic, he is at his shabby digs getting drunk with his gin-sodden wife Phoebe (Jane Wood) and their hopeless son Frank (Sam Newman).

Phoebe at least has some excuse for her conduct, since she is worried to death about a second son, out in Suez defending an Empire whose decline is shown by Osborne (It now seems somewhat heavy-handed symbolism) to parallel that of music hall.

Even this worry fails to stir the emotionally dead Archie, whose selfish vulgarity is neatly contrasted with the quiet dignity of his dad, a gentleman actor of the old school, excellently portrayed by Julian Curry.

Siri O’Neal gives an engaging picture of Rice’s daughter Jean, perhaps too engaging since her lefty platitudes were never intended by Osborne to offer any solutions to the nation’s problems.

Stage and Television Today, 20th June 1996, Roy Martin

Even in its trimmed-down version at the Watermill, John Osborne’s play sometimes seems just an overlong family wrangle.

But it remains an important testimony to the fifties disillusionment with English society – famously encapsulated in the author’s description of monarchy (though not in this play) as the “gold filling in the mouth of decay”.

And, of course, it has Archie Rice, one of the great parts in modern drama, splendidly incarnated by Michael Pennington.

Strutting on the stage as the comic in a tatty variety show, he exudes a gone-to-seed ‘boulevardism’ as he twirls his phallic cane – and he keeps up the patter at home.

But Archie is also a trapped creature and Pennington seems almost physically to shrink as his defences come down and he reveals himself as dead behind the eyes.

Director Stephen Rayne carefully orchestrates the domestic scenes so that Archie does not overwhelm them

Jane Wood as his wife Phoebe, growing tearful over the gin, and Julian Curry as his dapper father Billy, forever going on about the supposed golden age of music hall, are meticulous portrays.

It is odd that Osborne got such a reputation as an eloquent ‘angry young man’, for Jean and Frank Rice, the representatives of the younger generation, are written without conviction.

But Siri O’Neal and Sam Newman (who also doubles as Archie’s professional accompanist) do what they can with the roles.

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