The Play

IN SPRING 1957 Britain was still embroiled in the fall out from the Suez crisis which had come to a head six months earlier in what was Britain's ill-fated last attempt to impose its military will abroad.

It was a stark realisation of a change in the world order with Britain's imperialism well and truly past while the USA, USSR and now China were the new emerging powers.

Britain had lost 1,109 men in the Korean War which had ended in 1953. Suez had seen the body count rise again.

At home rationing had only ended three years earlier and the country was still recovering from a costly and devastating war in Europe.

While it's military might be fading through Britain's industry was enjoying a post war boom. The standard of living was rising and in the summer of 1957 the prime minister, Harold Macmillan declared the British people “had never had it so good".


Even entertainment was changing. Radio and the improving quality of the cinema had been competing with the music halls for an audience but now television had joined the battle. The televising of the Coronation in 1953 had seen a huge boost in sales of sets and with another stimulus when ITV was launched in 1955, providing a second channel, the new medium was increasingly to hit cinema and theatre audiences.

There were just too many cinemas and theatres for demand with perhaps the biggest casualty the music hall. Top English and American stars such as Jack Benny, Lucille Ball and George Burns could be seen every week on television so why pay for tickets to see second and third rate acts making up tired old bills in what were rapidly becoming run down theatres.

In comedy the days of the “I say, I say, I say” song and dance comics were numbered. Acts which were looking dated even before the war were now almost beyond resuscitation while for those at the top - TV could devour a lifetime's patter in an evening.


In the USA Lenny Bruce was just starting to change the face of stand-up forever while through it all pounded the beat of rock and roll, a revolution in entertainment which was challenging and changing everything.

In a nation where package holidays had started, car ownership was growing and tastes were becoming more sophisticated the public were finding exciting new interests - which did not include music hall. The sell by date had been reached.

With that backdrop Osborne introduced us to the Rice family, Billy, the patriarch, a retired star from the golden age of music hall and Archie, his son, a faded comic in a fading industry in a fading nation.

Osborne manages to use the play as a canvas to paint a picture of a nation in decline. The patriotic Billy laments the loss of what he sees as the old England but Archie has become the angry middle aged man. Once a successful comic, his best days are behind him and he is now reduced to jaded and jaundiced patter.

Osborne's genius was to write a play which was groundbreaking and modern in 1957 but which is still relevant and entertaining 52 years on. Britain and its influence are still in decline and the flag draped coffins arriving at RAF Lyneham are a constant reminder of British soldiers still dying in the Middle East.

The Entertainer first took to the stage at The Royal Court theatre on April 10, 1957, within a year of Look Back in Anger, the play which had both rescued the fledgling Royal Court and made the name of John Osborne.


In Look Back in Anger the main character, Jimmy Porter, was the original angry young man, a phrase first used in the press release for the production. It was a tale of ordinary people, with ordinary lives and ordinary problems in ordinary homes.

The play shattered the established notion of British theatre where plays set in the drawing rooms or the country houses of a safe, interwar middle class world where afternoon tea was served were the stock in trade. It was a world where war had merely been an interruption.

Osborne though had invented reality theatre, No glitz, no glamour just a window into the world where most people lived and survived. The play itself had to survive some flaky opening night reviews but was championed by one of the leading critics of the time, Kenneth Tynan. Its influence was huge and can be felt through the works of giants like Edward Albee, endless kitchen sink dramas and even the soaps such as Coronation Street and EastEnders.

Laurence Olivier was not a fan though and Corin Redgrave, who, incidentally, directed and starred in the Garrick's opening production of The Recruiting Officer ten years ago, relates how in 1956 Olivier, then directing and starring with Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl offered to take her then husband, the distinguished American playwright Arthur Miller, to the theatre and asked what he would like to see. Look Back in Anger said Miller much to Olivier's annoyance. Olivier tried to persuade him to see something else by Miller was adamant


At the interval the pair went outside for a cigarette and Olivier, who thought the play unpatriotic and a travesty of theatre, suggested leaving but Miller was hooked, he realised the significance of what he was seeing. So the pair stayed and Olivier, seeing the enthusiasm of one of America's greatest playwrights for Osborne's work was made acutely aware that the greatest classical actor of his generation was in danger of being left behind in a theatrical revolution.

He may not of understood or even liked the play but after Miller's ringing endorsement Olivier was savvy enough to realise that if the bandwagon was about to roll he could not afford not to have a front seat. Otherwise, just like Archie, he would be left behind.

A few days later he telephoned George Devine, the artistic director of the Royal Court, to inquire if the young man, Osborne, had perhaps written anything since and indicated that, if he had, then he might possibly be interested.

Devine told him Osborne was working on something, although he had not seen it and subsequently sent him a draft of the first act of The Entertainer.

Olivier decided that Billy Rice was the part for him. He was after all the senior figure, a distinguished star, head of the family and dominant in the first act but when the full script arrived he changed his mind to become Archie, the debauched, lecherous, now third rate seaside comic. It was to be one of Olivier's greatest creations and, ironically, of all the parts he had ever played Olivier maintained Archie Rice was his favourite.

Notable revivals have seen Max Wall, himself an aging variety star, as Rice, Corin Redgrave played him at the Liverpool Playhouse while Robert Lindsay starred at the Old Vic two years ago

Roger Clarke 

Associated features

 The Director Suez The Entertainer The Producer The Cast

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