billy and archie g

Pip Donaghy as Billy Rice and Shane Richie as his son Archie - with a framed print of Vladimir Tretchikoff's The Chinese Girl adding a period touch behind and Arthur Askey watching over them from atop the piano. Pictures Helen Murray.

The Entertainer

Wolverhampton Grand


John Osborne's 1957 classic presented a microcosm of a struggling post-war England distilled into the shape of Archie Rice, a modest vaudevillian, reduced to appearing in a nude revue as the age of the music hall succumbed to its death throes, with new kid on the block television taking centre stage and bingo halls and cinemas picking up the crumbs.

England herself was near bankrupt after the war, the days of imperial might long gone and the USA, Russia and even China now the world powers while the Suez crisis, a few months earlier, was a stark and costly realisation that our will could no longer be imposed by military might, Meanwhile at home immigration was increasing year by year to fill job vacancies.

Like Archie we were living on past glories and while retired music hall star granddad represented Edwardian civility and manners, a time when we could claim to rule the world, Archie, like Jimmy Porter in Osborne's earlier Look Back in Anger, railed against a world he could no longer understand, Jimmy's angry young man had become Archie's angry middle-aged man, fulfilling a request by the original Archie, Laurence Olivier.

This new version moves us on a quarter of a century to 1982, with Archie a washed up stand up with jokes past their sell by date living hand to mouth in the dying days of variety and the working men's club circuit, while as a country, unemployment has hit three million, levels not seen since the 1930s, Laker airways has collapsed  - and Argentina has invaded the Falklands.

The country was ruled by Margaret Thatcher, the most divisive Prime Minister in modern times, or she was, until soundly beaten to that particular title this summer. She provided a background of political polarisation and unrest with the Falklands giving the new setting its crisis.


Did you hear the one about Shane Richie as Archie Rice?

Did the new setting work as Osborne’s Entertainer? For me, not really, it was a variation on a theme rather than a new arrangement, but, did it work as play? Certainly, as seen by the standing ovation at the end from an audience where I suspect most had never seen the original, being drawn in by the likes of TV stars Shane Richie and Sara Crowe.

Sara Crowe, incidentally, is missing this week through injury, with her role as Phoebe taken by understudy Alice Osmanski, who is excellent as the put-upon wife. She gave a superb performance as a woman whose husband’s loyalty seems to be jointly to Double Diamond and his groin as a committed and very open philanderer. As a result, Phoebe takes refuge in gin and the past.

Osborne’s emphasis was on Archie as the centre of everything and little has changed in that respect.

Pip Donaghy puts in a wonderful shift as granddad Billy, a retired musical hall star, who has been given a hint of Alf Garnett in the rewrite. He is the patriarch but in name only, head of a family that has turned dysfunctional into an art form.

Daughter Jean, the daughter from Archie’s first marriage, played like the rest, quite superbly by Diana Vickers arrives home unexpectedly after a row with her boyfriend after she went to a political protest rally in Trafalagar Square, something Billy does not understand or appreciate.

She has a simmering anger which explodes in the second act as she attacks Archie for his philandering, his lack of emotion, his treatment of Pheobe, her step-mother, and for just being what he is. She sides, and drinks an awful lot of gin with Phoebe in a play so awash with booze that merely watching could put you over the limit.

In the background is Archie’s son Frank, played by Christopher Bonwell, who tries, half-heartedly, to defend his father, keep the peace and just survive in a a family at war with itself. He is ostensibly following Archie into a business that is already dying on its feet.

And then there is Archie, a remarkable performance from Shane Richie, perhaps the best of his career. He is on old style joke teller, with mother-in-law and wife jokes, a few prophylactic one liners – a Bernard Manning trying to hold back the tide of the new breed of alternative, observational comedians whose acts can fill stadiums.

As the play develops his act becomes more crude, more out of touch, starts to disintegrate, which perhaps sums up what he is like at home, celebrating 20 years of avoiding the tax man. There are moments when he breaks through the fourth wall to address the audience directly, not as a comic, but as who he is, Archie Rice. It works in part but does interrupt the flow a little.

The touchstones of the original are still there, with son Mick fighting abroad, Billy returning to the stage in an attempt to save Archie’s dying show, Phoebe’s brother Bill offering help, but somehow it has lost the heart, lost the soul of Osborne’s original.

This new version is a hard watch, brutal, cruel at time, it is a family steeped in conflict, three generation in the same house with Phoebe trying to defend the indefensible, claiming Archie has always been good to her, Jean defending Phoebe and telling her father he is “two pennyworth of nothing”, Frank trying to keep the peace and Billy the real angry one at the way the world is changing around him, like Phoebe, drifting back to the past for comfort.

But this new version has lost Osborne’s passion and his anger at the world around him. His play had compassion and his Archie had pathos, a man who had been a success, even if only a modest one, whose life, both on stage and at home, is crumbling around him. His bravado and patter hiding fear and confusion.

That dimension has been lost, which is not to say this is a bad play, far from it, just different. It has taken Osborne’s landmark play and rejigged it to create a new version which is harder, stripped of sentimentality and empathy, but it still remains a tense family drama of its time.

It is a superb cast, beautifully acted and well directed by Sean O’Connor and is set to entertain you to12-10-19

Roger Clarke


The Entertainer opens at Coventry Belgrade on Tuesday, 15 October running to 19 October. 

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