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Posts Tagged ‘Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’

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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This is a real love or hate show, though based on the audience reaction last night there’ll be a lot more in the former category. Farce has become somewhat unfashionable (notwithstanding the subversions of the form in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off and Mischief Theatre’s ‘goes wrong’ series) and I’m not sure the West End has seen a farce as frenetic as this for a very long time, if ever. After some initial misgivings, I succumbed to it’s profound silliness but consummate skill.

An assassin and a press photographer, unknown to each other, have adjoining rooms on the sixth floor of a hotel overlooking a court building where a well-known gangster is appearing. The assassin just wants to get the job done and get out of there. The photographer is spiralling into depression following his wife’s departure to live with her psychiatrist. Their situations become as linked as the rooms, as the hotel porter, a policeman, the wife and her psychiatrist get involved in the events unfolding, until the tables are turned.

Francis Veber’s play, adapted by director Sean Foley, is extraordinarily physical, exhausting to watch let alone play, and Foley’s production is very slick. Kenneth Branagh proved his comic timing credentials in Harlequinade earlier in this season, now he proves a master of physical comedy too. We’ve seen Rob Brydon play the hapless Welshman before, but here he adds physical comedy to great effect. Mark Hadfield has a great track record in comedy and here, without the physical demands of the others, he relies on body language, facial expressions and the odd movement to bring the house down. Alex Macqueen, Claudie Blakley and Marcus Fraser provide fine support. Alice Power’s excellent set also performs, as sets often do in farce.

Don’t go expecting culture, but do go prepared for and open to a thoroughly daft but thoroughly skilful example of a once popular but now endangered theatrical genre.

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