Literally so: the opening vignette replaces Osborne’s bleak scene-setting, introducing the brawling back-streets of a northern coastal town, with the sight of Archie alone, his back to us, head lowered, towel round his neck like a boxer readying for the next round. He conducts a slow tap-dance with a series of stomps and much deliberate, fancy leg-work, joined by a quartet of show-girls in negligées, tip-tapping in the shadows.
The action switches to the Rices’ draughty, down-at-heel digs, though designer Christopher Oram keeps everything within a decayed stage milieu: there are props and costumes ranged to one side; we’re in a replica proscenium-arch theatre, rafters poking through plasterwork. When Archie jokes “Don’t clap too hard, it’s a very old building”, the gag hits the mark.
Osborne elided the ailing world of the variety hall with microcosmic slices of troubled family life, creating a portrait of a disintegrating artist and a state-of-the-nation play at the same time. Branagh acquits himself with distinctive aplomb in each sphere but it’s his stage-business that captivates most.
L-R: Kenneth Branagh, Greta Scacchi, Gawn Grainger CREDIT: JOHAN PERSSON
Putting one in mind of Eddie Izzard with his red-lipsticked lips and toady grins, he’s convincing as a resolutely smiling trouper staring down the barrel of deadly audience indifference. Whether shuffling dandily along in tuxedo, dickie-bow tie and boater, cane-a-twirl, or camply dishing out Osborne’s knowingly excruciating, innuendo-laden repartee, you grasp why he’s top of the bill, yet never truly made it.
Director Rob Ashford gives us plenty of salacious suggestions of the “nude revue” that Archie is trying to shackle to his sinking vaudevillian mast. In terms of our own historical moment – with trouble again flaring in the Middle East, and the poignant demise of the Rice’s soldier son Mick hitting home – the revival is timely. But Ashford’s production could do with a more spirited tempo to compensate for the dialogue’s dated, often schematic quality, while there’s no getting around the abundant (to many ears today offensive) prejudice.
Kenneth Branagh as Archie, with Sophie McShera as Jean CREDIT: JOHAN PERSSON
There’s fine support from Greta Scacchi as Archie’s care-worn, cheated-on wife Phoebe, and Gawn Grainger as his intemperate ex-showman father Billy. Jonah Hauer-King displays promise too as Archie’s conscientious-objector son Frank, as does Sophie McShera as his passionate, politicised daughter Jean.
Kenneth Branagh CREDIT: JOHAN PERSSON
The evening is bookended by beautiful, solitary silhouettes of Archie and, for all the shadow cast by Olivier, Branagh triumphs in style. Those seeking a night of laugh-out-loud entertainment, though, be warned: if they do, the joke’s on them. National decline and personal failure is, now as then, at root a serious business.
The Entertainer, CREDIT: JOHAN PERSSON
The Entertainer is playing at the Garrick Theatre, London until Nov 12.
Book now to avoid disappointment: visit Telegraph Tickets or call 0844 871 2118.
Live broadcast to cinemas on October 27.