The Entertainer, Garrick Theatre, review: ‘Branagh misses the desperation of addiction’

Kenneth Branagh stars as Archie Rice in The Entertainer. Picture: Johan Persson

Kenneth Branagh stars as Archie Rice in The Entertainer. Picture: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

The evening begins with Branagh’s Archie alone on stage, his crisp taps softly echoed by ghostly dancers in the shadows. The production never quite regains that emotional power

Brexit-ish rants, generational divide, tax dodging and Middle East chaos: the contemporary resonance of John Osborne’s 1957 state-of-the-nation play is almost eerie.

Paired with an effective metaphor – the dying days of music hall – it’s a strong closing piece for the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s Garrick residency.

The other lure for Branagh is the chance to further emulate Sir Laurence Olivier, who originated the central role of failed vaudevillian Archie Rice. Branagh gives an assured song and dance performance, if overly slick. He misses the desperate sheen of one for whom the spotlight is a harrowing addiction, even though he knows his talent isn’t equal to it.

Nor is he entirely convincing as the womanising bastard who’s “dead behind the eyes”.

Rob Ashford’s production is similarly well presented, with an elegant fading grandeur set from Christopher Oram, but to mixed effect.

He elides the distinction between reality and artifice by merging stage and home, creating a fluid, dreamlike evening but muddling Osborne’s central point about the dangers of clinging to a world that no longer exists Ashford’s version of music hall is also rather too glamorous.

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The gin-soaked domestic battles – with Archie’s family acting as a microcosm of post-Suez, identity crisis Britain – are stronger, with Greta Scacchi superb as a blowsy, long-suffering wife, Gawn Grainger a belligerent Edwardian raging against progress, and Jonah Hauer-King effective as a conscientious objector whose generation is made to fight wars waged by their delusional elders.

Sophie McShera’s left-leaning daughter is passionate but too shrill.

The most arresting moment is the quietest: the evening begins with Branagh’s Archie alone on stage, his crisp taps softly echoed by ghostly dancers in the shadows.

The production never quite regains that emotional power – it’s ultimately entertaining rather than devastating.

Rating: 3/5 stars