It was a good mix of ages in the Curve audience, so perhaps a public service to remind the rising generation, awash in Brexindignation, that Utterly-Despairing-Of Britain-Especially-Tories is not new. It’s been a tradition ever since 18c cartoonists mocked John Bull. John Osborne”s disgusted play about a washed-up, alcoholic comedian whose son is at war dates from 1957 – Suez & Macmillan – but Sean O’Connor has hauled it forwards to the 1980s – Thatcher and the Falklands. Though to be honest, if you’re going to move it on three decades you might as well go further and drag it right up to Blair and Iraq, and make the vaudevillian into a game show host…
The story of Archie Rice, his downtrodden wife Phoebe , old school Dad Billy, son at war and stepdaughter seeing through him has been hailed as a masterpiece from Tynan to Billington and beyond. It’s last big outing was in Kenneth Branagh’s London season, and I have to admit I found that one flat and dated, and unkindly snarled about the “ long and tedious line of male ranters who confuse their own depression, sexual incontinence and inadequate misogyny as a state-of-the-nation vision.” Partly the problem there was that Branagh is no Ken Dodd: the stage-interludes should convince that this was at least once a comedy pro. In O”Connor’s production Shane Richie (famed from EastEnders, TV hosting and tabloid gossip) is a lot better: in a spangly purple jacket he evokes all the horrid hectic desperation of shiny-floor show hosts. He’s as nasty as Bernard Manning, as knowing as Howerd, as scampering as Forsyth but without the smile.
The director-adaptor has a brilliant eye for newer songs: Rice’s rendering of the Eurovision “I was born with a smile on my face” positively chills the blood, as does his final “Those were the days” . We also get a storming second half opening – against Sun and Mirror headlines about the Falklands War, riots and unemployment – as Richie in a Thatcher costume does Noel Coward’s “Bad Times Just Around the Corner”. A song which Coward, of course, wrote in gaiety to mock the post-war gloomsters of 1952. Here, Osborne’s Archie Rice means every word of it as he snarls “It’s as clear as crystal From Bridlington to Bristol That we can’t save democracy and we don’t much care”. That got a laugh, on Proroguement Day. The other notable response from the stalls was gasps at the heavy-duty sexism, misogyny and racism of our hero. “Owwwww!!” cried a young girl next to me.
It’s cleverly done, if sour-tasting. Richie is also good in the offstage scenes, in the claustrophobic family home with old Billy – Pip Donaghy giving it the full Alf Garnett but showing an older decency behind it – and Sara Crowe is an excellent Phoebe, the eternal demonstration that behind every grumpy bastard you’ll find a woman trying to make things nice again. It is a bit one-note – hectic, angry, drunken, hopeless – but that’s Osborne for you.
O’Connor ramps up the hatred of pointless wars and deaths for the Union flag, relishing that Osbornian question “Why do we just lap it all up? Is it just for a hand waving at you from a golden coach?” Richie has genuine depth when he steps forward for that terrifying admission of how dead he is behind the eyes. And I had forgotten the best line of all, which is his explanation of how the great comedians work, as his former hero Eddie did, in a denser version of the commonplace, seeming “to be like the general run of people, but more like them than they are”. So not sorry I went. And it’s a bit of theatre archaeology everyone should know. But I needed a drink afterwards, and I still don’t think it’s that great a play.
Touring to 30 November, Milton Keynes next
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