Garrick Theatre, London – until 12 November 2016
KENNETH BRANAGH IS NO KEN DODD… If you find yourself in an audience of maturer years , flee quickly at the final curtain, or someone will creakingly inform you that they saw Olivier as Archie Rice, John Osborne’s failing music-hall performer in 1957. Or maybe it was the 1960 I, on the other hand, can offer for what it’s worth the perspective of one who never saw this glum, angry metaphor for Britain’s decline into 1950’s pointlessness and Suez disgrace played at all.
So I come fresh to this finale of Kenneth Branagh’s season, starring the man himself directed by Rob Ashford. On the other hand, after Derby’s revival of Look Back In Anger, the Finborough’s rather marvellous “A subject of scandal and concern”, and the Donmar’s Inadmissible Evidence, the theme is familiar: Osborne’s men, especially Jimmy Porter and Archie Rice, are ancestors of a long (and generally tedious) line of ranters who confuse their own depression, sexual incontinence and inadequate misogyny as a state-of-the-nation vision. One meets them at the Fringe, or sidling into the mainstream with a light metrosexual-confessional gloss.
So it was interesting. But for all the professionalism, the marvellous seedy ‘50s backdrops of peeling gilt and holiday postcards by Christopher Oram; for all the standout brilliance of Greta Scacchi playing blousily despairing and helplessly angry as Archie’s wife Phoebe, it doesn’t really work. Not even with Archie’s truly terrible music-hall jokes and Branagh’s truly admirable admirable tap dancing – feet syncopating like the last faltering drumbeats of the Empire . It is not a great play. It makes you dismally wonder whether it isn’t time to ring down the curtain on angry-old-Ozzy for a while, saving only his Luther. As Archie would say, it “played better first house”.
One problem is a slow start: Gawn Grainger is splendid as grandad Billy, ranting about Poles ,Irish , male ballet dancers, railway food and how people used to take their hats off passing the Cenotaph (“even on the bus”). Yet there’s nothing striking there for a post-Alf-Garnett generation, and the one-note delivery of Sophie McShera as granddaughter Jean, supposedly the modern voice, is disconcertingly dull. Scacchi is terrific, giving Phoebe real depth and pain below the absurdity ; Jonah Hauer -King as the draft-refusing son is fine too, sharply touching when not forced to spout the usual nihilist-atheist-depressive Osborne shtick about how we’re all alone and nobody cares, especially Tories.
But the central problem is Archie. Branagh delivers the stage routines competently, but without the mesmeric conviction and control which even a middling music-hall veteran deploys. Perhaps too keen to justify his later claim of being “dead behind the eyes” he has an air of ironically knowing how awful it all is, even while he’s doing it. It doesn’t ring true: nobody keeps it up as long as he is supposed to without being addicted to rapport and laughter. He is far more convincing in the domestic rants and vituperation, but the halves don’t stick together . The Osborne misogyny grates too: nuns, tarts, barmaids, Phoebe herself are despised, and even when he gets tearful about a “negress” who sang a gospel song he can’t stop sneering at the “fat cheeks” of the “old bag”.
It is hard to care about his despair. And without that, the play’s own despair at the state of Britain rings hollow and dated. Osborne gave up on the nation too soon. And, indeed, on music-hall. As a silently ironic audience scoffs at Archie’s awful routines, note that in 2016 the great Ken Dodd is still touring, selling out vast houses and entrancing us for four hours on the trot with just the sort of bad jokes Osborne despaired of sixty years ago. I don’t know what that proves, but it feels important to mention it.
box office 0844 482 9673 http://www.branaghtheatre.com to 12 nov
In cinemas nationwide 27 Oct