In 1989, nearing the mid-point in our route through the A-Level English Literature syllabus, I remember our class going to see ‘Look Back in Anger’ at the theatre in London. We weren’t studying the play, but somehow tickets were available, and presumably in those days the amount of paperwork needed to arrange impromptu field trips was not so prohibitive. I didn’t really appreciate quite why Osborne’s characters were so angry then, or quite what had made them that way, but I remember clearly thinking that Jimmy Porter wasn’t the sort of person I’d want to hang around (the long-suffering Cliff got my sympathy in places) and that things couldn’t really be as bleak as he made them out to be. That said, both Jimmy and Alison were wonderfully acted by a young Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson – famous in that summer but not quite as famous as they were destined to become.
In the years that followed I’ve come to appreciate Osborne’s perspective on English life a bit more, and certainly in this Brexit-age the revival of ‘The Entertainer’ at London’s Garrick Theatre is timely and unsettling. Branagh returns again, this time taking on another role from the Laurence Olivier canon, as Archie Rice, a faded music hall performer nearing the end of the road. Rice’s disintegrating sense of self is mirrored in his home life – as fraught as life at the Porters’ in ‘Look Back’ and filled with uncomfortable silences and even more uncomfortable moments of openness. His stage persona is wearing thin: audiences are dwindling, money is short, and simmering resentments refuse to be suppressed. He is, of course, a walking gin-drinking metaphor for Britain in the 1950s: its misadventures at the Suez Canal having brought home to the populace how far the ‘finest hour’ of World War Two was in the past, and how limited the future may be.
The current production is brilliantly acted throughout, with Greta Scacchi’s long-suffering Phoebe and Gawn Grainger’s exasperated father Billy framing Archie’s disintegrating familial structure as his children Jean and Frank probe and challenge his shortcomings in equal measure. The great missing ‘presence’ in the play, however, is Mick – Archie’s son serving with the army in Suez, taken prisoner and destined to released – whose name unites the characters on stage as long as they believe he will be returning to join them, and whose absence ultimately prompts the disintegration of the Rice ‘family’ in any real sense.
The play’s resonance is as strong today as it must have seemed in the wake of the Anthony Eden’s Middle East misadventure, and whilst the casual racism and sexism may offend everyone but Republican presidential candidates it is remarkable how little of Osborne’s text needs glossing to make it seem relevant to the present. From political demonstrations in Trafalgar Square to nostalgia for the certainties of an age of imperial status, the play skewers the ‘little England’ mentality that carries Archie through on a wave of denial until the last spotlight is turned off and he, like England, is left in the darkness.
Clearly, this production has been a long time in the planning, but to see the down-at-heel vaudeville of Rice’s world in the Britain of today is a sobering reminder of how theatre not only critiques its own time, but lives to critique other times as well. My 1989 self may not have understood why Jimmy Porter was always so angry at the state of things around him, but in 2016 I certainly appreciate why Archie Rice’s delusion is as dangerous now as it was in the retreat from Suez.