REVIEW: The Entertainer @ Theatre Royal

Archie Rice – middle-aged, washed-up song and dance man has seen better audiences and better times.

Originally set in the Suez Crisis of the 1950’s , this John Osborne classic documented the end of Empire, the demise of the touring variety show in favour of tv and political downfall of the powerful. This version , starring Shane Richie, and directed by Sean O’Connor, has been moved forwards  to Thatcher’s Britain of the 80’s and the time of the Falklands conflict.

Again it’s a time of turmoil – unemployment, strikes and street riots, and what many considered a pointless war , so the transposition seems a sensible one.

More crucial to the success of this play with songs is the central actor playing Archie. TV soap star Shane Richie is electrifying as the man who tells us he is “ dead behind the eyes “ yet strangely the comedian/actor/singer imbues Rice with tremendous if at times vicious energy.

Heading a dysfunctional family – with drunken second wife, feisty old prejudiced father (a role wonderfully  crafted by Pip Donaghy ) and feisty principled daughter , he reins more with shouting humour than anything else. He  brings his stage act home, using his relatives with the same ironic disdain as he treats us as his theatre audience.

Diane Vickers is energised as the visiting daughter who seems to have woken up to political activism but isn’t quite sure why. Sara Crowe is the recipient of our pity as the much cuckolded wife who seems to have no purpose in life that doesn’t involve a gin bottle.

Following in the footsteps of three theatrical knights – Olivier, Gambon and Branagh – is no mean feat  – but Richie’s early career as a holiday camp entertainer and later game show host sets him in good stead for the constant inane patter that is Archie’s hallmark, and he works an audience like an old pro.

Funnily enough Osborne is too good at the jokes and Richie effortlessly makes us laugh , even when he is struggling with his inner emptiness.

It’s a great performance.  If you miss him this week, Richie is back in April reprising his West End role as a drag queen in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.

The Entertainer is at the Theatre Royal Brighton until 26 October.

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