The Theatreguide.London Review
Garrick Theatre Autumn 2016
There have been two or three major London revivals of John Osborne's 1957 play, but it will always be bound in memory and legend with the original starring Laurence Olivier in one of the truly iconic stage performances of the last century (only partly captured in the not-very-good 1960 film) .
Olivier brought special qualities to his portrayal of Archie Rice, third-rate end-of-pier music hall performer whose story becomes in the play an embodiment of Britain's mid-century decline, and his huge shadow will forever hang over anyone else attempting the role.
Confession: I am an old man and, as a babe in my mother's arms, I saw Olivier when the Royal Court production moved to Broadway. Two things stick in my mind almost 60 years later – the way he turned Archie, when seen as a performer onstage, into a frightening grotesque, almost the evil clown of nightmares, and the way he made us see what Archie says of himself at one point, that despite all that external energy he is 'dead behind the eyes'.
An actor who takes on the role doesn't have to imitate Olivier, of course. But he has to find some fresh and personal way to convey those qualities – Archie's spiritual deadness and the demonic energy he somehow conjures up when performing.
And the very fine actor Kenneth Branagh doesn't.
As directed by Rob Ashford, Branagh is very successful at capturing Archie's essential less-than-mediocrity as both man and performer, and he lets us see and be mildly repelled by the performer's oily artificiality as he tries to appear charming onstage. But in his hands Archie is never more than just a man of small soul, neither dangerous nor especially pathetic.
So dominated is the cultural memory by Olivier's image that it can be a bit of a surprise to discover that the scenes of Archie onstage actually make up a very small part of the play, which devotes most of its time to the domestic scenes in his current digs, as his father, his wife and two of his adult children live their lives around him.
And if the actor playing Archie does not totally dominate the evening with the force of his personality, you discover that the play is not really about him, but about his daughter Jean.
Jean has come for a visit after breaking with her upper-class and conservative boyfriend because political events – the play is set in the middle of the Suez crisis – are making her question her received values.
By watching the others in the family – self-centred Archie, dim but good-hearted stepmother Phoebe, salt-of-the-earth grandfather Billy and bolshie half-brother Frank – she gradually discovers her own values and decides who among them she owes the most loyalty to.
And because we watch her watching them, Jean becomes the moral centre of the play.
If Kenneth Branagh never really gets beneath the shabby surface of Archie, Sophie McShera finds a deep, complex and sympathetic character in Jean, someone capable of learning and growing until she is prepared to become in effect the new head of the re-configured family.
Greta Scacchi lets us see all of Phoebe's foolishness and dependency but also her essential goodness, and leads us to respect a kind of heroism in her continuing to love without really being loved, but Gawn Grainger seems to still be trying to find just who Billy is.
Even that 1960 film that I dismissed in the first sentence captures more of what makes Archie Rice one of the greatest characters of twentieth-century drama than this live production does.
But this revival, precisely because of that failing, lets us see the rest of Osborne's play more clearly and be caught up in its drama more fully than ever before.
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