Posts Tagged ‘John Osborne’

Apparently Laurence Olivier, the first Archie Rice, only took an interest in playwright John Osborne, asking him to write a play for him, because Arthur Miller told him he was good – he was working with his wife Marilyn Monroe on a Terence Rattigan screenplay at the time! I first saw John Osborne’s angry middle-aged man play (a follow on from his angry young man play Look Back in Anger the year before) when it was 30 years old (with Peter Bowles), then again when it was 50 (Robert Lindsay) and now on the eve of it’s 60th birthday with Kenneth Branagh. It’s one of only a handful, a third of his solo original plays that have been produced, that I’ve seen. Each time it has had less impact and today seems even more like a museum piece.

Music Hall entertainer Archie Rice is declining and failing, as is Musical Hall itself. His career has followed in the footsteps of his dad Billy, now an archetypal grumpy old man. His wife Phoebe works on the electrical counter at Woolworths and tolerates his infidelities. His daughter (not Phoebe’s) lives in London, has become an independent, politicised woman and left her fiancé Graham. Son Mick is away fighting in the Middle East (it’s 1956, the Suez crisis), a bit of a hero it seems. In contrast, his other son Frank was imprisoned for draft-dodging. A dysfunctional family and a metaphor for the decline of a nation.

The scenes in the cramped family digs are interspersed with Archie’s act, now a comic song & dance man in shows where nudity is the real attraction. They sit around talking, sometimes affectionately, sometimes angrily, drinking an awful lot of neat gin. Tragedy hits twice when Mikey doesn’t make it back from the war, then Billy goes to meet the great song & dance man in the sky. In 2016 it’s hard to swallow the racism, sexism, misogyny and homophobia, however ironic it was intended.

I found myself admiring the production but not really engaging with the play. Christopher Oram has designed a superb crumbling music hall within which the family living room sits. The performances are fine, particularly Gawn Grainger as granddad. Kenneth Branagh shows us again, as he did in Harlequinade and The Painkiller, that he has excellent comic timing and physical acting skills (his dancing here is excellent), but I’m not sure he captured all of the complexity of Archie Rice, and I’m not sure the camp touches fitted the character.

The Branagh season’s disappointment for me has been the choice of plays. Neither Harlequinade nor this were, in my view, worthy of revival, and The Painkiller, though enjoyable, was hardly ground-breaking. I didn’t see the two Shakespeare’s and had already seen the ‘afterthought’, Red Velvet, at The Tricycle. Both this, and the season, were a bit of a disappointment for me.

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I find it very hard to write about a bad play whose main character is a monster but where there’s an outstanding performance in an excellent production!

John Osborne’s play is really a one character play, even though there are 10 other characters played by 7 actors. Bill Maitland is a borderline illegal solicitor who bullies his staff. He’s unfaithful to both his wife and his lover. He’s a lousy father. He’s a sexist misogynist. He’s self obsessed and self loathing. You can’t help but hate him. Though he appears to be having a breakdown before your eyes, you can have no sympathy with him. If he slit his wrists, I don’t think I’d care. Good riddance. How can you like a play that revolves around this man that, to make matters worse,  may be a self-indulgent exercise in exorcising the playwright’s hang-ups about himself.

Douglas Hodge’s performance is however extraordinary. He’s a dominant presence, on stage for two hours; I felt really sorry for the supporting actors who have to play punchbag, counsellor, target, sex object, foil….. It’s a character in search of a play. It’s hard to know how much of it is in his head and how much is actually happening. It opens with a clearly imagined court scene. Somewhat ambiguously, one actress plays three clients and his junior later appears as a client – is that as written or is it director Jamie Lloyd’s idea? Soutra Gilmour’s realistic design provides a claustrophobic 50’s office, with an outer office behind a glass screen, for all of this to be played out brilliantly.

It’s a fine production, but I didn’t like the play and I hated the character…..but Hodge’s performance is masterly and I’m glad I went just to see that – just…..

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