The Entertainer, Royal Exchange, Manchester

1950s Britain was a dreary place, still dominated by post war poverty and still coming to terms with the end of empire. The sort of place from which so many would seek the escape of the new world, as — and this gives nothing away — John Osbourne’s Entertainer, Archie Rice, eventually does. As this old England dies with it goes its culture. There is no place for the old music halls or for wheeler dealer types like Archie.

And yet the play fails to engage. A major problem is Laura Rees, who plays Archie’s daughter Jean. Sadly the best we can say about her is that she has very good posture, which she demonstrates by standing far too stiffly most of the time. We learn what Jean is experiencing not through Laura Rees’s performance, but from how others react to her: ‘you’re looking peaky,’ she’s told. ‘Is she?’ we think.

This is a shame because it is through young Jean’s eyes that we are expected to witness this crumbling vision of the 1950s. Her grandfather was a music hall legend and her father would be too if only the music hall wasn’t dying. Bravely, Jean has attended some anti-government protest in Trafalgar Square — we assume against Suez — and her apparent radicalism worries her more conservative elders. She can see the old world order is over and she can see the family business is over too. Yet sadly Laura Rees’s performance in anything pivotal, being instead the weak link that brings the whole thing down.

David Schofield presents a rounded and believable Archie, but nobody really wins our sympathy.

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