Shane Richie takes the lead in John Osbourne's classic.

Written by John Osborne in the 1950s, The  Entertainer tells the story of washed-up music hall star Archie Rice. A performer long past his expiry date, Archie is struggling to negotiate the changing sociopolitical landscape of the mid-20th century...

Heading out on tour for the first time ever, The Entertainer has been updated somewhat - to the 1980s - and unfolds against the backdrop of the Falklands War and Margaret Thatcher. The production stars Shane Richie - best known as EastEnders’ Alfie Moon - in the title role. 

John Osborne’s The Entertainer, widely considered to be among the greatest plays of the 20th century, is this autumn touring for the first time ever.

West End and EastEnders star Shane Richie talks to What’s On about playing the character of Archie Rice, one of the most iconic roles in British theatre...

Written by John Osborne in the 1950s, The  Entertainer tells the story of washed-up music hall star Archie Rice. A performer long past his expiry date, Archie is struggling to negotiate the changing sociopolitical landscape of the mid-20th century...

Heading out on tour for the first time ever, The Entertainer has been updated somewhat - to the 1980s - and unfolds against the backdrop of the Falklands War and Margaret Thatcher. The production is directed by Sean O’Connor and stars Shane Richie - best known as EastEnders’ Alfie Moon - in the title role.

“The Entertainer really is like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” says Shane. “If you don’t have a sense of humour or you’re easily offended, you might not enjoy it! It’s a real tough piece - a real slice of social realism - and deals with sexism, racism, homophobia... all the things that are still around today to some degree. Most of all, though, it’s a thrill to watch because it’ll really get your back up and show you how much society has or hasn’t changed socially and politically over the last 30-odd years. If I wasn’t in it, I’d want to see it!”

Archie Rice is a role that’s been earmarked for Shane for over a decade: “I was approached by the director, Sean O’Connor, about 12 years ago. He spoke to me about it when we met while I was working on EastEnders. I was too young at the time, so he told me he’d wait until I was in my mid-50s because he was sure I’d make a great Archie Rice. So I guess I’ve been clock-watching since then!

“The characters I’ve played in the past have been likeable, whether that be Alfie Moon or on Benidorm. To play Archie Rice, who’s so out of step and such a total opposite, goes against everything I’ve ever learnt as a performer. Obviously, when you go out on stage as a stand-up comic, you want people to like you. Archie Rice doesn’t care whether you like him or not, and he goes against all my principles. I like stretching and challenging myself, pushing how far I can take the character, so that’s also why I wanted to play Archie. I’ll also be following in the footsteps of the likes of Laurence Olivier, Robert Lindsay, Michael Gambon, Kenneth Branagh - it’s a real thrill and an honour.”

Shane has no worries about the update from the ’50s to the ’80s: “If you’ve never seen the original, it won’t matter. This is almost like an entirely new piece all on its own in terms of the setting. Whereas the original is set against the backdrop of the Suez Crisis, this version deals with the Falklands. A lot of people who were around in the 1980s will remember that the face of comedy was really changing then. We had new, upcoming sitcoms like The Young Ones and Spitting Image, and comics like Archie Rice just became dinosaurs overnight. So The Entertainer is basically about how Archie can’t seem to cope with that and just loses his s*** really!”

Shane thinks the play really resonates in 2019: “It seems that every 30 or so years there’s great social and political change. I think we’re in that place now, just like we were back in the ’80s with Margaret Thatcher’s government, the Trades Union  disputes and the Falklands. I feel like The Entertainer allows us to question and explore how much we’ve actually moved forward. It will be interesting to see if those who come and see it think we’ve progressed that much or not - so in that way, it’s really exciting.

“Back in the day, The Entertainer came out as a real state-of-the-nation play, off the back of John Osborne’s other major work, Look Back In Anger. Osborne was a real maverick. He was part of a group of playwrights who made theatre for and about the actual working class. He turned that on its head, though, and made stark social commentary by putting a mirror up to the audience. So the play was really relevant back then, and I think we can still see a bit of ourselves in it now.”

Given the wide-ranging nature of his showbusiness career, it’s fair to say that Shane himself is something of an ‘entertainer’. His CV includes stand-up comedy, straight acting, and performing in the West End as a drag queen...

“I’ve just finished playing Hugo - also known as drag queen Loco Channel - in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Hugo is a character at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Archie Rice. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is all about diversity and embracing everyone, regardless of differences. Archie is the polar opposite. He’s racist, homophobic, sexist - so far removed from the subject matter of Jamie. I’ve loved having the opportunity to play both characters this year, as it’s really   exciting for me to do such different projects.”

Playing Archie Rice seems to have brought Shane’s career full-circle: “I started off as a jobbing actor at the age of 15 or 16. I did a  couple of seasons in holiday parks, where in between acting jobs I had a stand-up act. So coming towards my 20s, I was performing in pubs, clubs and anywhere I could, just to keep my head above water. So that’s where it started for me. Playing a character like Archie Rice now is really interesting because I’ve seen him; as I was starting off my career, the careers of people like Archie were coming to an end.”

Shane has every intention of going one better than Archie by remaining in-demand: “When this tour is over, I’ll be doing panto - another completely different role. Then next year I’ll be going on tour with Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, and then I’ll hopefully get to have a holiday. I know that Tootsies has just opened on Broadway, and I’d love to be in it if it came over here to the UK. I’d also love to play Sweeney Todd.”

For now, though, Shane is concentrating on The Entertainer - and firmly believes that audiences should grab the opportunity to see the production with both hands: “This show has never toured the UK before, and there’s a reason for that - it really is asking the audience who we are as a society. In the show, I’m doing some very different stand-up to what I’ve ever been used to, so it’ll be interesting both for me and the audience. The Entertainer really isn’t to be passed up!”

The Entertainer shows at Malvern Theatres from Monday 9 to Saturday 14 September; Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Monday 7 to Saturday 12 October; Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, from Tuesday 15 to Saturday 19 October; and Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, from Monday 18 to Saturday 23 November.

By Lauren Cole


on Thu, 22 Aug 2019

John Osborne rose to prominence in the 1950s for his outspoken writing and stark social realism with his play Look Back in Anger. The Entertainer was more than a match for its writer’s predecessor and is now widely regarded as a modern British classic. 

Written in 1956 at the height of the Suez Crisis, the play follows the break down of the Rice family as ageing music hall entertainer Archie Rice clings onto his failing occupation. Cleverly, the creatives of this new production have chosen to wind the action forward to 26 years, landing us in Britain in the middle of the Falklands War. 

British national identity and ethical standing was called into question once more from within Britain and other nations. The Suez Crisis had confirmed our decline as a global power, so our swift response to the Argentine invasion of the Falklands sought to defy the inevitable. 

British pride seems to be as much of a hot topic in the life of the characters in The Entertainer as it was in the accompanying politics of both Osborne’s original and this new production. Archie Rice and his family are nothing short of tragic as a result. 

The men of the family are avid entertainers, with Archie’s father Billy having retired from the trade many years earlier. Both Billy and Archie accept that music hall showbiz is dead and buried, but Archie carries on regardless with more and more desperate attempts to make his shows appealing and debt piling up with the creditors.

With the police and tax man catching up with him and his family in disarray, even Archie - who appears, on the surface, as the most notoriously unfeeling of humanity - can’t maintain his stiff upper lip forever. The Rice family spend what little money they have on booze, drinking themselves silly to forget their troubles. 

Archie Rice has been played by the likes of Laurence Olivier and Michael Gambon - big acts to follow for any performer. This production’s director Sean O’Connor believed West End and former Eastenders star Shane Richie would make the perfect Archie Rice, and I couldn’t agree more. 

Shane Richie’s Archie Rice has the stella voice and stage presence to match his devil-may-care attitude. Archie’s blatant and constant disregard for his family’s feelings, taunting them with stories of his numerous affairs with other women and their lack of life prospects is abhorrent. His jokes provoke a mixture of tuts, eye-rolls and titters from the audience. It’s obvious that Archie’s attitudes towards women, race and the LGBTQ+ community are well out of touch with 80s ‘alternative comedy’ from men like Ben Elton - and even more removed from the ideas of most Millennials and the Generation Z demographic of today.

The audience want to hate him, but he appears as pathetic and down-trodden as he is cruel; in the end, we just pity him. Richie’s biggest accomplishment is effectively creating Archie’s showbiz persona as the veneer that attempts to hide his pained existence. 

Archie’s daughter Jean provides a breath of fresh air, as does the wonderful actress who brought her to life on stage. Diana Vickers has a clear talent for bringing raw human emotion to her roles, which is essential for Jean Rice. Jean repeatedly stands up to her father and watches on in equal parts of sadness and disgust as her family crumbles.

Grabbing firmly onto the 80s setting, the set and costume design of this production certainly harks back to that era with great effect. The decor of the Rice family home is left over from the 70s, representing the family’s stasis; it’s also far too brown in colour and far too garish in its layering of different floral patterns to be palatable. Somehow, this backdrop only makes The Entertainer’s narrative all the more bleak.

Osborne is the most ingenious writer, managing to squeeze the entire sociopolitical experience of a nation into one play. The Entertainer is a play that stands the test of time, which is made explicitly clear by this production’s ability to switch its era with great success. Furthermore, it resonates with more recent events that have divided Britain: the 2003 invasion of Iraq and Brexit, to name just a few.

The over-simplified characterisation of John Osborne as an ‘Angry Young Man’ does not give him nearly enough credit for the depth and nuances of his writing. The Entertainer is a truly thought-provoking piece of theatre coming out of pure creative genius. Granted, it often makes for grim viewing, certainly ruffles a few feathers and may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Osborne wouldn’t have had it any other way.

 

The Entertainer shows at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until Saturday 12 October.

 

****

Lauren Cole


4 Stars on Mon, 07 Oct 2019

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