Ah, John Osborne. Just hearing the name evokes stirring memories of a golden, angry age of British playwriting, when the old world order was shifting and everything was up for grabs. But here's the first problem of a tricky evening: If audience members come to this revival of The Entertainer (1957) without prior knowledge of its legendary status and reverential memories of the career-shifting performance of Laurence Olivier in the title role, the piece simply looks rather dated and second-rate. In one of the great dramatic ironies, it's Terence Rattigan – whose elegant style has been condemned to the dustbin of renown by the ire of Osborne and his ilk for way too long – whose work stands up far better and more timelessly in the second decade of the 21st century.
The Entertainer is the final production in the year-long West End residency of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, and it's not saying much about what's gone before to proclaim that it's the least worst offering. Kenneth Branagh, who has been burdened with comparisons to Olivier since the very start of his career, takes the role of Archie Rice, the jaded music hall entertainer who is famously "dead behind the eyes." Osborne uses Archie's fading star in music hall's dying days as a metaphor for Britain's end-of-empire status after the Suez Crisis of 1956. There's decline in the man and decline in the nation.
Designer Christopher Oram sets the action within the framework of a decrepit proscenium arch theatre, which then plays home to both the music hall scenes as well as Archie's fraying domestic existence with his unhappy family. The design is a neat comment on the fact that Archie is giving a performance everywhere he goes. He's unable to talk meaningfully to his loved ones, trotting out some tatty anecdote that he has told hundreds of times before instead of dealing in any kind of emotional honesty. Nonetheless, it is rather odd when Archie's scantily clad backing dancers break off mid-routine to reassemble some of the domestic equipage for the next scene.
Branagh entertains decently enough, from his opening tap solo in a dusty spotlight to the delivery of Archie's terrible jokes. "Don't clap too hard – it's a very old building." It's fair enough, too, that he gives a sense of Archie holding everyone at arm's length. What absolutely doesn't work, though, is Branagh holding Archie himself at arm's length. His performance requires more blistering venom – Archie is not a nice man, particularly to the women in his life – and utter desolation. Without this, Rob Ashford's production stubbornly refuses to coalesce into a satisfying whole.
There's fine support from Gawn Grainger as Archie's decent father Billy, once a music hall man himself but now retired, bewildered and mourning the loss of an old England of unwavering certainties. The women, as all too often with Osborne, fare less well. What saddens me most is that Branagh, one of the finest actor-managers this country has ever produced, should be able to do better than this.