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‘The Entertainer’ finds new life on a small stage

NWN May 1996, Huw Evans

He has played Hamlet at Stratford and co-founded the English Shakespeare Company, one of the most critically acclaimed theatre companies of recent years. For the next few weeks, however, Michael Pennington is in Newbury – treading the boards at the Watermill as a failed music hall artist in ‘The Entertainer’.

How does he make the leap of imagination required to play one of the theatre’s pathetic failures and how different is one of the smallest theatres in Britain from the West End?

“It wasn’t a role on my shopping list,” Michael Pennington admits candidly of Archie Rice, the seedy, fraudulent music hall artist who is rapidly sinking into oblivion as 1950s Britain begins to turn its back on its past.

But was playing John Osborne’s ‘The Entertainer’, a man who seems to die a thousand deaths on stage an experience with which Pennington could emphasise?

“I think all actors know the feeling of being up on stage and feeling dead inside. All actors have behaved shabbily to other people as well – I know I have.”

Although ‘The Entertainer’ has been performed all over the world, the Watermill’s proportions have provided practical and artistic challenges.

“The stage is tiny and I really have to be extremely precise when I am tap dancing. There is only a four foot depth on the stage – so if I misjudge, I fall off.”

The other challenge has been the intimacy of the theatre; Archie Rice would have been dying a death to 100 people in a 2,000-seater, whereas 100 people in the Watermill is half-full.

This apparent conflict is resolved by Pennington’s homework on music hall great, Max Miller, and also his instinctive understanding of the dead world of the music hall; the bewilderment he portrays in Archie Rice’s eyes is based on real life observation.

“I was in my teens when the play opened and saw the original stage production at the Palace. I also grew up around the corner from the Metropolitan Music Hall in Edgware at the same time as the play is set. It was a brilliant conceit of Osborne’s to use the decline of the music hall as a metaphor for the decline of Britain. It is one I understand.”

Pennington is a firm fan of Osborne whose love/hate analysis of Britain’s traditions he believes to be as relevant today as they were in the 1950s.

“Although some of the localised references are lost, there is an enormous amount of vivid details for which he has a wonderful knack; you can almost smell the fish and chips.”

Despite having to tread carefully on stage, Pennington enthuses naturally about the Watermill, fiercely attacking the lack of a Southern Arts subsidy, and praising the dedication of its staff.

“There is a feeling that everyone here is totally behind the show – unlike some London theatres where there’s a feeling of ‘Hamlet this week, Macbeth next week’. When I first drove in here, I thought I was in a dream. It’s certainly a fantastic privilege to work here; I can’t find anything wrong at all.”

Despite having had his fill of tours during his six years travelling the world with the English Shakespeare Company, Pennington is now toying with the idea of taking ‘The Entertainer’ on tour, after its four weeks at Bagnor ends.

For a first visit to a tiny theatre, Michael Pennington seems to be in an inspired mood.

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