I arrived at the Keble O’Reilly a tad out of breath, already late and desperate to avoid an awkward entrance. Fortunately, the show had yet to start and my luck improved when I was offered an ice-cream or a beer to take in with me. I paid for a beer, a sort of self-congratulation for making it on time and something to help me through what I was told would be a long show. 

John Osborne’s second play provides an insight into the lives of the working-class Rice family during the Suez Crisis. Archie Rice (Charlie Wade) is a failing music-hall comedian and singer whose pitiful acts provide the undercurrent of the show. Unable to keep the traditional music hall entertainment business alive, Archie is a resentful and sordid character who takes his situation out on those closest to him. The play focusses on each member of this post-war family, including Grandad Billy (Arthur Campbell), Archie’s second wife Phoebe (Celine Barclay) and the children, the well-educated Jean (Olivia Marshall) and peace-keeper Frank (Henry Calcutt). 

When I entered the theatre, I found myself in a living room. I was taken aback and felt as though I hadn’t meant to enter that way, but soon realised that this was the only entrance. Thrust into the action, it is a credit to the set-design that I really felt as though I had intruded into someone’s home. A traverse stage, with the acting placed across the middle of the room and the audience on either side, the layout was impressive. On one side there was a community-hall-like stage with a spotlight and a row of audience chairs in front of it, and behind these began the 1950s living room which was excellently decorated. How appropriate the set and costumes were for the period was a particular highlight for me, and the designers Tara Kelly and Chloe Dootson-Graube outdid themselves, from the furniture to the tweed jackets and the classic cigarette holder.

What really stole the show for me was the live orchestra. Bringing the play to a resounding start, I was instantly engaged with the opening scene. From feet-tapping trumpet blows to the creation of a nostalgic, vinyl-esque atmosphere that transported me into the period, I was incredibly impressed with the professionality of the music. In particular, the songs Wade performed as part of Archie’s acts, including “Thank God I’m Normal” and “Why Should I Care?”, lit up the room with laughter and were made especially triumphant by the accompanying music. Of course, I cannot omit the two dancers (Gregor Roach and Alex Fleming-Brown) whose stripping down into Union Jack underwear really caught audience attention. These scenes were creatively pulled off, with lighting, costume, and sound design all truly making it feel as though I was experiencing traditional music-hall entertainment.

The performance was, as expected, too long and the ending was dragged out beyond comfort, yet this is perhaps a fault of the script rather than directing and it was truly an impressive feat that the cast were able, despite a few rushed scene changes, to maintain their characters and, notably, their accents. Their scenes all together were dynamic, and one could really feel a sense of dysfunctional family shine through, even past all the on-stage smoking which itself was a nice touch.

The acting was superb. The sinister side of Archie was excellently brought out by Wade, whose commitment to both the crazed stage-personality and spiteful, crude home-body left me feeling uncomfortable and as sombre as he hopeless. Although in his own way resentful, Grandad’s character brought a sense of normality to the piece and Campbell achieved a strange lovability (as loveable as a racist and misogynistic granddad can be) to the role that broke up the continuously descending drunk scenes. The audience came to pity Jean, whose inner turmoil over family, politics, and the “right” thing was so clearly expressed by Marshall throughout. Her expressions and reactions to the chaos unfolding around her – which she too participated in – were never faltering, immersing the audience in the aching disappointment family can provide. Barclay’s portrayal of the constantly fretful, drab Phoebe was my personal favourite. Her accent stunningly captured the period and I fully believed her character, the incessant whining eliciting laughter from the audience and her overly emotional persona wonderfully expressed through Barclay’s mannerisms. 

There were many striking monologues throughout this piece, but Wade’s dire speech on the impact, or lack thereof, that one has on the world was especially captivating. “I’ll never make a beautiful fuss,” he remarks, highlighting the sombre period, and dispirited England. The Rice family is self-described as “deadbeats” and “down-and-outs”, and whilst this play so excellently captures these individuals and the wider period, the performance is far from it. Engaging, entertaining, and moving, ‘The Entertainer’ is brilliant.