The Theatreguide.London Review
Old Vic Theatre Spring 2007
What is unquestionably one of the major British plays of the last century is given a solid revival on its fiftieth anniversary - one that doesn't overshadow the iconic original production, but which complements it nicely, illuminating an important part of the play that might have previously gone unnoticed.
John Osborne's follow-up to Look Back in Anger is the story of sixth-rate music hall comedian Archie Rice, the fading of his career and his milieu serving as a metaphor for the decline of all that was glorious about the British past.
Bits of Archie's dreadful stage act alternate with scenes of his crumbling home life, sad depictions of the kind of ambitionless, hope-less emptiness that Osborne saw in the Britain of the 1950s (and that Jimmy Porter railed against in Look Back in Anger).
Famously, this play was the occasion for classical master Laurence Olivier to dip his toe in the waters of the new drama, and come up with what is generally agreed to be one of his two or three greatest performances.
I was, of course, but a babe in arms at the time, but I can still see Olivier's Archie in the onstage sequences, oozing disgust at himself for being so bad and at his audience for settling for him. On the other hand, I don't have any clear memories of the at-home scenes in the original production.
I suspect that the converse will be true about this revival - that it is the domestic half of the play that will stick in my memory. Director Sean Holmes and actor Robert Lindsay do not generate the same nightmare quality to the onstage scenes that Olivier gave them.
For one thing, Lindsay plays Archie as second-rate when he should be sixth-rate, and that makes a lot of difference. Lindsay's Archie is not a good performer, but he's not particularly bad. You can even imagine a good audience inspiring him to rise above himself, and Archie should be beyond such hope.
There's no hint of the soul-destroying self-hatred Olivier burned into the role. Rather, Lindsay makes Archie just seem bored with doing the same thing over and over at half-steam, and contemptuous of an audience who can't tell the difference.
On the other hand, Lindsay and director Holmes bring more power and pathos to the at-home scenes than I ever imagined was there. The Archie who feels nothing for himself or anyone, even those he loves in his way, has never seemed so tragically empty and doomed.
This is this
revival's great contribution to the play - the forceful and moving
reminder that it is not just the tale of Archie the entertainer or
Archie the symbol, but of Archie the ordinary man of 1950s Britain,
beaten down by a grey culture and a grey world so that, in his own
words, he is 'dead behind the eyes'.
And that, I suspect, is closer to the play Osborne was writing than Olivier's overpowering image of self-hatred.
As strong as Robert Lindsay is in the domestic scenes, he is matched and occasionally topped by Pam Ferris as his wife, racing desperately away from her unhappiness in alcoholic self-pity. It is a brave performance that constantly risks going too far in order to go exactly far enough.
The rest of the cast are at best serviceable, John Normington playing Archie's father too young and Emma Cunliffe never quite getting a grip on Archie's bolshie daughter.
No, the power of this production lies in its reminder that underneath the metaphor and the flashy performance sequences lies the almost Arthur Miller-like story of a little man beaten down by life until there's almost nothing left to him.
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