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Even the most ambitious and inventive set designer might baulk at the prospect of equipping the Garrick's tiny studio theatre for this Garrick Rep production. So full marks to John Brooking for transforming what little space is available into a functional and atmospheric split-level home and musical hall stage that provide the perfect backdrop for the entertainer of the title, washed-up comic and song and dance man Archie Rice.
He is brought to life by John Ashton, who gives a measured yet ambiguous performance, only really allowing his character's true feelings to surface during the closing act of this bittersweet classic which, although set in the mid-fifties, still resonates with contemporary Britain. A credit crunch existence and soldiers dying on foreign soil certainly has a familiar ring.
Local actor Gerry Hinks does a fine job as Archie's father and world-weary former star Billy Rice, setting the scene perfectly before Archie takes centre stage. Lin Blakley gives a moving, wonderfully over the top portrayal of Phoebe Rice. Emily Pennant-Rea's elegant, understated interpretation of daughter Jean is powerful and mesmeric. The 140-seat theatre is so intimate that you feel as though you are right there in the family's living room, intruding on their grief and despair, especially during the frequent heated exchanges.
Director Andrew Hall brought Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to this ambitious company last year and saw that production transfer to London's West End. It would be nice to think that this latest offering could also have a life after Lichfield.
With British soldiers dying in the Middle East, a Prime Minister with plummeting popularity and general mistrust of politicians running through the play, Lichfield Garrick Rep's production of The Entertainer could have been written last week instead of 1957.
Set during the Suez crisis in 1956 the play is either a tribute to writer John Osborne's clairvoyant powers or a condemnation of the world in which we live.
The Entertainer is Archie Rice, a cocky, Jack-the-lad, quip for everything comic with worn out routines and an eye - and more - for the ladies. The excellent John Ashton plays the part with subtlety as we see the growing pathos of a performer whose act and world are falling apart.
His father, Billy, played by Rugeley actor and playwright Gerry Hinks, was something Archie will never be, a big star. Billy has reached an age where he lives on memories and complains about the way the world is changing.
Lyn Blakley is superb as Archie's long suffering second wife Phoebe who puts up with her husband's many infidelities on the basis that Archie is a man and "it's more important to them".
Phoebe, who worries about her son Mick, away fighting in Egypt, speaks in constant torrents, gushes of words that change direction on a whim. Blakley brings out the sadness, insecurity and emptiness of her life visibly wearying as the problems mount.
Living with the trio is Archie's other son Frank, who has just spent six months in jail for refusing to be conscripted - unlike his brother Mick. Rob Pass, continuing a Lichfield Rep tradition of giving a newcomer a chance, grabs the opportunity with both hands to show much promise in his first professional role.
Into their lives comes Jean, Archie's daughter from his first marriage, who had had a falling out with her fiancée after she attended an anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square. Emily Pennant-Rea plays the role confidently with those clipped Celia Johnson tones of the well bred 1950s London lady which set her apart from her more rough and ready family.
Osborne used the terminal decline of the music hall, of Archie and comics like him and even a decline in standards as a theatrical metaphor for the fall of the British Empire and the end of a way of life and it says much for his writing and observation skills that much remains relevant today in a play which hardly shows it age half a century on.
The rest of the family have put up with Archie for years but as the play moves on we find that Archie himself is putting up with Archie as we learn of his fears and self loathing as he tells Jean the smiles and sincerity when he walks on stage - or anywhere - is just an act.
"I don't care about anything, not even women and draught Bass."
The lack of draught Bass in Toronto being the reason he won't take up an offer of a new life in Canada.
Then he admits that he feels nothing for the audience and they feel nothing for him - which must be a tragedy for a performer.
"I'm dead behind these eyes. I don't feel a thing and neither do they (the audience). We are as dead as each other."
Archie's patter is dated at its best but as his world falls apart so does his act to its final, awful conclusion.
The play has a strong cast and moves at a cracking pace which is a tribute to director Andrew Hall and is helped by an imaginative set, courtesy of designer John Brooking, which provides a sitting room and theatre stage all in one piece which cuts out a lot of scene changes.
Hall was also responsible for last year's autumn Rep production, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which went on to appear in the West End. The two productions are similar in that they are both plays that are well known, modern classics which have stood the test of time, yet are probably known by many more people than have actually seen them.
But any doubts that last year's highly praised production would not be matched have been dispelled by this one and Hall and producer Tom Roberts seem to have the seeds of an autumn tradition on their hands. The trick now facing them is to make it three in a row.
Incidentally Tracey Childs and Mark Farelly, Martha and Nick, from last year's Virginia Woolf, were in the audience for the Press night.
In 1957 the left-wing Royal Court Theatre was desperate for a follow-up to John Osborne's ground-breaking first play Look Back In Anger which had upset nearly everybody both in and out of the theatre. In the meantime Osborne himself had become a phenomenon, the original Angry Young Man so soon parodied by Galton and Simpson as Hancock and Steptoe Junior.
But Osborne was more complicated than Steptoe. A natural champagne socialist he was part of the generation made politically aware by the war, conscious that something was wrong, his views echoed by the millions of labour voters who'd poured out of the forces and who wholeheartedly welcomed the emerging welfare state. To them Britain's imperialist involvements abroad looked increasingly dubious, culminating in the notorious Suez affair which cost us a Prime Minister and nearly involved us in another costly overseas war. So there's an interesting parallel here 52 years on with our own perhaps unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Plus ca change.
Seen now the play seems episodic and contrived. The music hall scenes meant to evoke a more vital working class world merely hold up the action. The platitude-ridden dialogue in the family scenes, although intended to evoke the discontent and despair of a lower class so cynically made use of during Britain's fight for victory breaks no newer ground than did Coward's own classist portrayals of the salt of the earth as seen in This Happy Breed, Brief Encounter and In Which We Serve.
Osborne's new-found chic meant that ironically The Entertainer's first night audience was packed with the very targets Osborne's withering scorn was aimed at, 'serrated rows of sparklers, perfumed earls, belted countesses and the St. Michael mafiosi'.
And he was now so fashionable that the central character, unheroic Britain personified as failed comedian Archie Rice was played by Laurence Olivier whose Henry V had come to embody exactly what we were fighting for during the war. The avant garde had been swiftly neutralised by the establishment.
Olivier later described this role to Kenneth Tynan as "the most wonderful part that I've ever played". In truth even he couldn't afford to be out of the post-war swim, what with the National Theatre or his peerage not quite yet in the bag.
So the Garrick Rep's production has a lot of baggage to carry. A relatively recent production at Derby tackled this by judicious cuts. Here reverence wins the day. Similarly Archie's final scene can be seen as a terminal meltdown. At Derby it made David Threlfall, their Archie, a TV star, landing him the role of Frank in Shameless where he now melts down in nearly every scene. John Ashton here doesn't attempt that, seeing him as a downtrodden failure without much more than a whimper of regret, which is possibly or possibly not what Osborne meant.
Emily Pennant-Rea as his daughter Jean seems somehow to have gained her education and accent at Roedean along with an unconvincing if embryonic political conscience she hasn't the stamina to do anything about. Rob Pass fills in as the right-sort brother while Gerry Hinks nearly steals the show as the life-like old-timer regretting the past with no means to get a handle on the present or anything else. Grief at his demise seems somehow underplayed.
But there's always a star, and here it's Lin Blakley as Phoebe, Archie's misused, bewildered wife who movingly embodies the powerlessness of ordinary people in the face of the personal and political realities of their day.