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Review of The Entertainer at Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes

For those attending this remodelled version of The Entertainer who is familiar with the work of John Osborne, will probably notice the unfamiliar the most. Much of this play is set apart from the original, both timezone and main character are tweaked, this is the eighties now, and the tone of the comedy has drifted away from what would have been acceptable in the fifties. Indeed the whole feel of the piece seems wrong, so, could it possibly still work?

Archie Rice is an on the slide comedy performer, "entertaining" the miserable hoards at the local theatre with his increasingly out of touch comedy. Times are a changing and Rice is not changing with them, unlike father and fellow, but retired, performer, Billy Rice, who saw the end coming, so sits at home shouting out racial slurs to his new neighbours instead. Into this comes Archie's daughter Jean, bringing emotion to the household, and Archie's wife Phoebe, who brings the sparks of friction. It's set for fun times in the Rice household.

Central to the success of this version of The Entertainer is the performances. They are all keen and on point, from the main event of the star attraction, Shane Ritchies' Archie, to the boisterous Pip Donaghy as Billy, no one lets the side down.

Ritchie is key, of course, the star vehicle of the production in many ways, and certainly the ticket seller, and his slowly disintegrating performance of Archie is excellent. He knows how to work the crowd of course, and the opening stand-up scenes show that but as his act gets less and less welcome, he becomes a hater of his audience, aggressive to them, it is a fine and nicely handled balancing act. In the home scenes, he is still very much a showman, the typical hiding of the emotion behind the bluster, and for me, the sadly rare moments that he steps out of reality and addresses us with true feelings are both the strongest part of this production, play and Ritchie's performance.

Diana Vickers as Archie's daughter is a delight, innocent, mostly quiet, but drinking away and hiding emotion most of the time. Her confrontations, while rare, including over Trafalgar Square, are all the more powerful for it. It is a tremendously quiet role most of the time, but one which Vickers makes the most of.

Sara Crowe's Phoebe Rice is most often seen at the bottom of a glass, and this leads to endless friction and the need to talk all of the time, it's a tough role because of this and Crowe makes it work without the potential that this does have of being overplayed. Christopher Bonwell as Phoebe's son Frank is a generally good presence in what is an underwritten role.

Finally, we have Pip Donaghy, who, as the curtain rises on his home, is instantly some Alf Garnett character, shouting at the foreign residents. Fortunately, this opening is a ruse and quickly disregarded, to reveal a much deeper, and contemplative character at times. Sure he remains spiky and one-dimensional in many areas, but there is also depth here, given much more by Donaghy's excellent performance. The moment where we get treated to a snippet of his stage career is particularly heartwarming.

Staging is very good, and director Sean O'Connor makes a show that feels should be presented on a much smaller stage than Milton Keynes, still feel homely and at the correct times claustrophobic as tensions rise.

There is much to love about this production, but if only for once in this day and age, they had left everything alone. For me, the modernisation doesn't work, there is no point moving it to the eighties, the relevance is the same, and the time is that far away still that it doesn't make it modern anyway. Leaving it where it was with the Suez Crisis instead of the Falklands War would have still worked. It feels that the whole point in moving it, is to use some, admittedly, excellent music from the eighties, increase the crudeness of the jokes beyond Osborne, and to put Archie in Margaret Thatcher drag. The updated part is just frustrating, and every changed line set beyond the fifties sticks out like a sore thumb, as you know Osborne didn't pen it. If only for once, theatre productions would leave things alone, and that is from me, who applauds all the reworkings of Shakespeare. Yeah, I do double standards, but after 400 years, I'm allowed them.

The Entertainer is a great production here, mostly because of the strong cast. It falls down in it trying to make an eighties point and being given a more political edge. However, the strength of the cast and the power of Osborne still remains, if a little diluted by nefarious deeds.


Potentially a superb production, limited by some pointless time-shifting.
½

Performance reviewed: Monday 2nd September 2019 at Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes.
The Entertainer runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 7th September 2019 before continuing its tour.
Further details about Milton Keynes Theatre can be found at http://www.atgtickets.com/venues/milton-keynes-theatre/

Photos: Helen Murray

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