The night before The Entertainer, there was an inadvisable TV re-imagining of Are You Being Served?, a night or two after, a cringe-worthy re-creation of Till Death Do Us Part.
The problem was the same. When something is of its moment, steeped in myriad cultural signifiers, how can it appeal to an audience entirely divorced from its time, setting and, indeed, language.
The answer, in all three - it cannot, at least not without some saving grace. The Entertainer is further burdened with its status as a “state of the nation” play, freighting the drama with once-topical resonances about the post-war decline of Empire and the humiliation of Suez which just seem, to modern ears, gratuitously defeatist especially considering the renaissance that flowered only a few years later.
The story centres on the Rice clan, living in shabby digs while clapped out song and dance man Archie holds together his fragile finances with a song, a smile and a glass of draught Bass. We meet him celebrating the 20th anniversary of income tax avoidance.
The family is permanently sozzled which tends to prompt the collective towards maudlin introspection or endless recrimination. In the midst of this soap opera, Archie’s response is to perform, tap dancing atop the trauma with dopey gags and double entendres.
Set against a peeling backdrop, Archie is a grotesque, a philanderer, and a no hoper, a man who doesn’t so much come alive in the spotlight but becomes marginally less dead. That he willingly admits to these failings makes him shallower and more reprehensible still.
Kenneth Branagh is beautiful fit for this grease-paint husk, capable of twinkled-eyed banter in the spotlight and reproachful melancholy when the curtain. His performance is worth the ticket price alone but if that remarkable display of craftsmanship does not suffice then his neglected wife Phoebe, played by an improbably dowdy Greta Scacchi also catches the eye.
She is a gin-soaked sentimental sap – the victim, and enabler, of Archie’s Faded ambition and thoughtless infidelity. The effective Gawn Grainger plays Billy Rice, the part originally intended for John Hurt until he withdrew.
Indeed this evening is essentially three performances tethered to a drab gubbins of a play (as Archie might say.) “There’s a lot of acting going on,” commented one American, exiting the theatre, adrift in a sea of English pessimism and vernacular.
Playwright John Osborne was in his 20s when he wrote this cynical lament for old England so he lived long enough to predict that Branagh would play Archie Rice one day. That fulfilment of promise is the sole (and yet sufficient) reason for this revival. Otherwise it acts as one of those old Gillray cartoons - biting and bilious once but now quaint, homely and cryptic.