Kenneth Branagh has been described as many things but “clairvoyant” is probably a new one. Yet the star of stage and screen must have been channelling his inner Mystic Meg when, back in 2013, he created his eponymous theatre company and decided the climax to its year-long residency at the Garrick Theatre would be The Entertainer. Maybe someone should ask him who’s going to win Strictly this year.
John Osborne’s state-of-the-nation play is set at the moment of the Suez Canal crisis, when Britain invaded Egypt only to have to humiliatingly withdraw after the United Nations intervened. Almost 60 years on, Osborne’s play about an ordinary family divided by geopolitics feels all too relevant to post-Brexit Britain.
Branagh plays Archie Rice, a third-rate music hall comic who blithely performs in the face of growing antipathy. Off stage, he’s buffeted from both sides as his dad regrets the decline of the Empire and the way Britain is pushed about by foreigners, while his daughter protests against the illegal military intervention in Trafalgar Square.
Kenneth Branagh, Greta Scacchi and Gawn Grainger
But the real metaphor lies in failing, outdated Archie, who was played by Laurence Olivier in the 1960 film. Branagh captures the pathos of the protagonist as he struggles through his routines, showing off nimble footwork in the tap numbers. He may not quite match Olivier’s iconic portrayal, but he certainly puts his own stamp on the part and is as watchable and entertaining as ever.
The standout performances, though, come from Gawn Grainger as the comic’s worn-down dad and Greta Scacchi, who gives a superb turn as Archie’s put-upon, neglected wife for whom familial pride matters as much as the politics outside of the front door. It’s the scenes of domestic and intergenerational strife that have the most spirit.
If there’s a downside, it’s how dated some of the dialogue and humour now sound, especially the racial epithets and highly prejudicial characterisations. Some modernisation to make it more palatable to a 21st century ear wouldn’t hurt.
The Entertainer is as British as a seaside postcard – and some of the characters might have stepped out of one on to the stage – but it’s still a pertinent and engaging watch, with as much to say today as it did then.
The Entertainer is at The Garrick until 12 November