Like someone lost in a desert Kenneth Branagh continues to follow the footsteps in the hope they will show him the way home. The footsteps are of course those of Sir Laurence Olivier. Branagh’s latest attempt at mirroring is starring in his own production of John Osborne’s The Entertainer.
Branagh has done Shakespeare, an overnight sensation he become an national treasure,he has married and divorced the nation’s sweetheart, he has made films not least Henry V, flirted with Hollywood, become an actor/manager. And now the play that relaunched Olivier.
The play about a down at heel music hall performer was cast as a metaphor for the decline of Britain losing its Empire in the mid 1950s. Maybe. It was written for Olivier as well being another excuse for Osborne to have a rant at the unthinking British public.
It starts brilliantly, a lone spotlight,a fit, half dressed man in silhouette, unbearable tension and then he starts to tap,slow, athletic,graceful,dramatic.
But most of the play has a more familiar set. The dysfunctional family,preferably three generations under one roof. The old man who bemoans the present and future, the cynical,selfish, philandering main man ;his long suffering,dreaming wife; the children breaking free. The outside changing fast. Chuck in endless drinking and you have a format for love, hate, witticism, anger, spite. Unhappy families are all wonderfully different and provide a stage exploited by Chekhov, Ibsen, O’Neill, Pinter among others.
The problem with Branagh is he just too fit and virile, too fast moving to be the ageing, cynical Archie Rice, the music hall dinosaur. That doesn’t mean it is an evening wasted. Although its a good rather than a great play the moments when Branagh does the musical hall song ,dance, and bad joke act are very good. But in many ways the best was right at beginning. Many rate the real musical hall star Max Wall as the best(of many) who have played Archie Rice.
Branagh often feels like TV detective Wallander putting on another voice. As it happens for all his considerable achievements it will be for that show Branagh will be remembered. While Larry…. easy is the head that wears the crwon.
When the play opened in 1957 the then Manchester Guardian accused it of being “banal and while not being a great play it was not a bad evening’s entertainment either.” However by 1974 The Times declared the play(with Max Wall) to be “ one of the best family plays in our repertory.” You pays your money, and you takes your choice, in my case £65.