The Entertainer- Garrick Theatre London

*Disclaimer, I saw this while it was still in previews so this review comes with the caveat that it was not the offcial finished product.

The Brannagh season at the Garrick comes to a close in style with John Osbourne’s classic ‘The Entertainer’. When curating the season it seems a fitting finale for Kenneth Brannagh, who takes on the fading song and dance man Archie Rice.

Osborne’s play is a dual reflection on the demise of the Music Hall and the demise of Empire, with the Suez crisis as a backdrop to the ailing career of Rice. It is on one hand a fascinating insight, and look back, on the other elements of it don’t quite hit the right notes any more.

Osborne’s men in general, where once rang fresh and new, sometimes feel hollow, self involved and of their time and misogynistic. This is no reason to stop reviving these plays, they are still important works with much to think about, even if with time the things we think of when watching Osborne shift from the anger of the angry young (and older in this case) men, to also as an audience passing our judgement on these men, and their rage. The Entertainer is a fascinating reflection back on a moment in entertainment history and political history.

Brannagh himself is as masterful and charming as you’re expect. However his Archie is at once too talented-Brannagh’s own tap dancing is exact and with flair-and also a little too ‘dead behind the eyes’. The latter is clearly a choice, his Archie goes through the motions, unenthused and ticking boxes. This jars with the dialogue and Osborne’s crafting of the character- nobody would go on that long, and fight that hard if there wasn’t still a sliver of love there somewhere. However the Music Hall routines are entertaining, pitch perfect in their hark back to that era. Brannagh is, as a dancer exacting, his singing channelling the era, his jokes likewise and delivered with panache. One odd element, with the hair, the makeup and the accent he uses Brannagh seems to also channel Eddie Izzard in look and demeanour, which while might not be what Osborne ever imagined works incredibly well.

The transitions from the Music Hall to the domestic in this production are sometimes awkward, director Rob Ashford seeming unsure how to move between or meld the worlds. In these scenes we meet the rest of the Rice family, although the writing is such that for the first half the unobservant audience member (as I was in this weekend’s London heat) might miss the key details of the family relationships.

Among the Rice family Gawn Grainger-a later addition to the cast due to John Hurt needing to step down-is a standout as the angry patiriarch Billy Rice. His rants about Poles and male Ballet Dancers ring as familiar today from those of certain demographics. His anger and passion for both the Empire and a time already lost, cuts through the supposed anger of the younger generation. With Sophie McShera’s Jean Rice painted as passionate and principled but coming over a little one note and reserved. Greta Scacchi as Archie’s second wife Phoebe brings the most nuanced and passionate performance. A real sense of her frustration at the way her life has turned out, and the conflicting love for Archie and her hatred for the things he puts her through is conveyed.

Somewhere the link between Empire and Music Hall feels a little lost. Whether it’s through this production that struggles at times to bring together the home and stage world, or whether it’s simply the passing of time and the dating of the play that loses this element is unclear. However the strong political themes you feel are running under the narrative, never quite leap to the fore as they perhaps should. However it is a solid engaging production of a classic and still important play.

If you end up sitting next to a member of the older generation they may tell you tales of Olivier being masterful in the role in the 60s. Others may also remember Robert Lindsay’s turn as Archie at the Old Vic more recently. Both were masters of their craft and their takes were no doubt equally masterful. Brannagh likewise delivers, just as you might expect him to, and it’s a fitting curtain call for his own season at the Garrick.

box office 0844 482 9673 http://www.branaghtheatre.com to 12 nov
In cinemas nationwide 27 Oct

Never going to be good enough…on ‘artists’ and being terribly lowbrow.

I’ve come to the realisation I’m just not…something. You see all the words I want to use to fill in that sentence feel insulting, wrong. I could say ‘clever’ but clever is relative. I could say ‘artistic’ or ‘high brow’ they seem more fitting. But it still feels insulting. What it boils down to in both trying to be a part of the arts and academia is I’m not what people consider ‘high brow’ enough. I’m a little bit common, a little bit…is this what the cool kids mean by ‘basic’? Do the cool kids even say ‘basic’ anymore?

See this is my problem. I don’t like the cool stuff. I don’t like the sophisticated stuff. I don’t like the artsy stuff that we’re supposed to revere.

This becomes a problem when trying to be a part of anything artistic, but also something I encountered in academia as well. You’re not an allowed to be a writer/artist of any kind of you don’t like the ‘right’ stuff and you’re also not considered intellectual enough either.

To which, I say:

And promptly betrway my lowbrow sensablities.

The longer version starts with: but why is anything we get either enjoyment or inspiration from so very wrong?

And let me float an idea: what you like influences you if you want to write, create your own artistic work in any way (and I mean ANY way if you want to make flower collages for your home or write erotic Supernatural fan fiction you are still being artistic-I’ll come back to that) or even just to be valued as a person, what you like isn’t a measure of your intellectual or artistic worth, it’s a marker of what you like or don’t like. It’s that simple.

In theatre there’s a high degree of snobbery. This isn’t news. The people who go to see Mama Mia are looked down on as inferior to the people who go to the Royal Court. But hold on, firstly why can’t they go to both? and newsflash people do! And also, frankly Mama Mia has made a lot more people have a damn good night out. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I’m all for the power of art/theatre to change, to protest, to raise issues. I wrote a PhD on theatre and AIDS for goodness sake! And that’s not meant as a ‘highbrow’ or superior brag. I wrote that (damn hard won) PhD because I was and am fiercely passionate about the role theatre and performance had to give voice to people with AIDS, particularly in the early days of the epidemic. I am passionate about how writers, performers used their voice and ‘art’ to make people listen and fight for change.

But often that isn’t enough either. You ask me what to me is the most significant piece of theatre to me, and it will depending on the day you ask me either be Angels in America or Rent. If you’re asking me what has shaped my brain, my thoughts on performance, on theatre, the answer is Angels in America. If you ask me what the most emotional, visceral experience in a theatre I have had, it’s Rent, hands down.

But that’s a) not the answer people want b) the whole story. Those reactions, emotions are product of a 1000 different factors. I found Rent at the right age and the right time, the stars aligned and in terms of emotional memory it’s doubtful anything will eclipse that. Angels similarly in an intellectual way, captured my mind at the right moment and spurred me onto something. Both are, if you’re pushing me for an artistic dramatic response, etched into my mind and soul. Does it make them faultless works of art? the best theatre ever created? No. I have literally 1000s of words on why they aren’t. But they are mine, and they are part of me.

And we can’t assume because someone says they don’t like x or y supposedly high brow or intellectual thing that they don’t understand it, or that they aren’t somehow sophisticaed enough. That in itself is an ignorant and snobbish judgement.

And why do we elevate some things as more ‘worthy’ than others? why are we suddenly better,cleverer people if we chose to spend our time at the angry one woman show, rather than taking in a West End musical? And why are artists ‘better’ if they make something dark and obtuse that people struggle to understand, rather than something that people can access and enjoy. Shrek the Musical has some excellent life lessons contained in it but of course nobody wants to admit that they’d have a better time there. Don’t get me wrong I LOVE the frisson, the intellectual stimulation and the nagging thoughts that follow a really good piece of drama. But I also enjoy being entertained. There’s room for both in cultural consumption, so there’s room for both in cultural production.

This does extend beyond theatre, I experienced much of it in teaching English Literature, having not had an undergraduate degree in the subject I missed reading most of the ‘Canon’ as a young adult (partly due to being a History undergrad, so I was busy learning about Wars and Sparrows in China). And although my colleagues couldn’t recite the names of key historians and rate their relative worth, I was the ignorant one. As I say it’s all relative. Now firstly it’s not a revelation that I’m not high brow enough for academia. For a start I genuinely considered re-titling my PhD ‘Fuck Foucault, a reflection on why theory isn’t the answer to everything’.

But it goes beyond English Literature and Theatre, people are notoriously snobby about what you do or don’t like (as a test, be that person who says ‘I don’t watch Game of Thrones’ and see the reaction). Now sometimes people are saying they don’t like a thing to be edgy or different. Sometimes they tried it and simply don’t like it, sometimes they just haven’t gotten around to it yet. But for every Game of Thones they aren’t watching there’s 10 things that ‘everyone’ isn’t watching that they’re passionate about.

And it’s those things they’re passionate about that will fuel them. Whether in academic, social or artistic pursuits. And they’ll be responding to the world, and they things they love in an honest way. There is no point in me for example trying to become the next writer of Game of Thrones because I don’t particularly enjoy it, it’s not my style, it’s not my genre. However if someone wants a spin off from The Good Wife, or if the Supernatural writers want some new demons creating, then I’m your girl. Or you know if Chris Carter wants to give The X Files to someone who actually gets his characters and will do them justice…ahem. Sorry I digress.

All of which brings me to a secondary point. I already write. I already create. I have since I was a kid, I have seriously since my late teens when I (brace yourselves) started writing fanfiction. I still get to call myself an artist. I still get to call myself a creator. And so do all of you out there who make anything for whatever reasons. My fellow fangirls and fanboys who make fan art, who write fanfiction, who make videos. You are all artists. Those of you who make webcomics, or YouTube videos you’re artists. If you sing, you dance. You’re artists. If you make crafts, draw paint. If you do it for your friends, fellow fans, your family or just for you. If you create you are an artist. Nobody, and I mean nobody gets to tell you that you aren’t or to place some hypothetical sliding scale of judgement on whether you’re creating ‘real’ art. Create what you love, for whoever you damn well like.

Basically (and brace yourselves, low brow cultural reference a-coming) think like Elle Woods. The artistic types of the world, the intellectual types of the world may be saying you’re just a dumb blonde in  a ridiculous outfit….

But that doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough. If Elle Woods taught us anything, it’s do it your way. And one day may we all meet our Warners and say:

What I’m really saying is that cultural is a broad specturm, art is a broad specturm. And we don’t fit into neat little boxes as consumers, so why should we pretend otherwise? and why should we try and perpetuate the idea that the only worthy things, the only ‘real’ art is some dark obtuse piece of work that nobody but the creator really understands?

And how, where and why you create work also isn’t a marker of who you are as a creator. If your family likes your collages, or a small following of fanfic readers LOVES your Wincest fic, you’re making something people enjoy. And that that counts. If you enjoy it, that counts. To quote another musical:

“I’d rather be nine people’s favourite thing than 100 people’s ninth favourite thing”