Sir Kenneth Branagh is a showstopper as a music hall act whose days are numbered in The Entertainer, a West End show written in the 1950s that has a surprising amount to say about life in Britain today.
This is the sixth and final show in a 13-month takeover of the refurbished Garrick by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company which has seen, alongside the man himself, luminaries such as Lily James and Derek Jacobi (Romeo and Juliet), Dame Judi Dench (The Winter’s Tale) and Adrian Lester (Red Velvet) tread the boards.
As with the rest, The Entertainer has a frighteningly talented ensemble but for the finale it is Sir Ken fittingly taking centre stage in a role originated by none other than Sir Laurence Olivier.
Archie Rice (Branagh) is a veteran hoofer whose career, and industry, is sliding into obscurity.
Interspersed with Archie’s slick yet hammy and inauthentic singing comedian schtick, the Rice family descend from tipsy but civil banter to bitter and boozy rows as everyone – from teenager children Jean (Sophie McShera) and Frank (Jonah Hauer-King), wife Phoebe (Greta Scacchi) and dad Billy (Gawn Grainger) loses patience and hope with their dwindling lot.
Playwright John Osborne captured the end of an era in the late 1950s, the dying days of music halls a metaphor for the country caught up with the fall of the empire and the Suez Crisis.
It might as well be now: war in the Middle East, Britain coming to terms with its declining place in the world, misplaced national pride and young people disenchanted with politics and a world that isn’t working for them.
Distilled through director Rob Ashford and Branagh, Osborne’s work could equally be describing the nation in the wake of Brexit, right down to the old man moaning about the Polish neighbours downstairs.
The Entertainer’s 13 scenes take place in the family sitting room or on the stage but either way Christopher Oram’s shabby music hall set, with its peeling paint and holes, inescapably looms over.
Branagh’s performance as ‘dead behind the eyes’ Archie Rice, a man who fears his waning career – and life – is hollow and built on outward technique over authenticity, is mesmerising.
Performing the Rice’s on-stage numbers, he is polished yet at home he tries not to let the mask slip as he breaks down – keeping the inevitable away with a combination of denial, booze, women and spite.
Impressive though the cast is, particularly Scacchi as the insecure Pheobe, things do drag, with scenes lingering on and stalling rather than delivering the knock-out punch you feel they should be building towards.
At its best theatre reflects our lives and while The Entertainer, like Archie Rice’s act, is a product of another time and may not always hit the spot, it always feels relevant. And we’re reminded once again why Sir Kenneth Branagh is one of our most revered theatre makers.