How fascinating it has been to see two productions of The Entertainer within the space of four days: Tony Richardson’s classic 1960 film (he also directed the play’s première in 1957) and the Shaw Festival’s first production, directed by Jackie Maxwell, which opened yesterday.
Happily, instructionally, the “glue” to both is John Osborne who wrote the play and wisely collaborated with Nigel Kneale for the screenplay—would that more original writers be afforded the opportunity to take a major role in the transformation of their work from stage to screen.
Of course, there’s a huge difference in the results. With the ability of the camera to be everywhere (but always selectively), much more of the narrative can be told silently and quickly—the actual time required (103 minutes of film compares with nearly three hours in the theatre) to work through the same story also impacts the messages received and effects of the telling.
The English seaside resort where the action is centred almost induces the smell of seaweed and the cry of seagulls in the movie; for Niagara-on-the-Lake, the rectangular Studio Theatre (mounting its inaugural production) quite literally sets the stage for Osborne’s truly pathetic tale of an aging music-hall performer whose audience is ebbing —never to return—on the twin tides of cinema and television.
With most of the main speeches, songs (original music from the knowing pen of John Addison, inventively realized and performed on piano, snare and crash cymbal by Reza Jacobs) and dialogue intact, it falls to the actors, director and crew to choose then demonstrate their point of view on this multilayered work.
At the centre of it all (with, relatively, more screen than stage time) is Archie Rice—the perpetually down-on-his-luck, womanizing, song-gag-and-dance man who is always dreaming of the next big show and/or sexual conquest (when those twin desires intertwine, well, Who could ask for anything more?).
Benedict Campbell is more than up to the challenge of mugging bad jokes (so reminiscent of this season’s Red Peppers), singing patriotic/melancholic songs and kicking up his heels (oh, to have had real tap shoes). He and Maxwell are on the same page of characterization, yet the dark side (notably confessing an incredible infidelity to his daughter) is delivered with such a light, sardonic tone that the evil lurking beneath the humour remains largely in the script instead of uneasily slipping into the room. By the final curtain, Archie appears to be a moribund drunkard and not the complex failed funnyman who will never command a full house. No one cares enough when the proverbial hook ends his unspectacular run.
As Phoebe Rice, the long-suffering, gin-Dubonet swigging second wife, Corrine Kolso delivers an emotionally charged performance that is unforgettable. Her cries of anguish make the blood run cold as she loses family, self-respect and one last hope of everyone making a fresh start. Daughter Jean (Krista Colosimo) also has moments of inspired angst, tempered by a cooler tone that manages to heat up the bickering voices which surround her visit home. Already a hard liquor devotee, the chances of staggering down her daddy’s addled path are intoxicatingly high.
Ken James Stewart incorporates his boyish good looks, convincing piano skills and a clear if somewhat reedy tenor, giving his pulled-in-all-directions (he’s served time for refusing to fight during the Suez Canal crisis, but seems destined to follow in his lecherous dad’s small-hope footsteps—still, moving to Canada is not out of the question …) depiction of Frank Rice a convincing air.
David Schurmann devours the key role of Archie’s dad and retired entertainer with as much style, skill and relish as the cake he famously eats (offstage here; in the film—caught in the act—its emotional devastation is far more powerful) the first slice of a cake of hope and celebration. The elephant in the room is the expected return of Mick—the son who willingly did his duty for Queen and Country—from his harrowing experience of being captured by the “wogs.”
Delving into issues that are worlds apart (fidelity, alcoholism, war, honour) binds this miserable slice of life of men whose motto “Always leave ‘em laughing” morphs unstoppably into yet another chorus of “Why Should I Care?” Whether in the cinema or live “on the boards,” Osborne’s cautionary play maintains its shtick, warnings and extraordinary understanding of how history is doomed to repeat itself. JWR