The Shaw Festival should have been putting on plays like John Osborne’s The Entertainer long ago. This show’s only getting about three dozen performances and the new theater space isn’t very big, so we don’t suppose many people will get to see it. But it’s really too good to be missed.
The Entertainer is the second play at the Shaw Festival this season to deal with the end of the music-hall era in England. The first was Noël Coward’s Red Peppers, the one-act play in Play, Orchestra, Play (see the Emsworth review).
In 1936, the Peppers couldn’t see that vaudeville was on its way out; twenty years later in 1956, in The Entertainer, it really is over, and comic singer Archie Rice (Benedict Campbell) is hanging on for his professional life. The music halls are mostly closed, and Archie is reduced to using his tired jokes and old songs to introduce a burlesque show. His pianist (Reza Jacobs, who is excellent) has a snare drum and cymbal next to his piano for the ba-da-bings.
Don’t let the songs fool you: The Entertainer is neither a musical nor in any sense a feel-good play; it’s an intense, uncomfortable story of a family that isn’t coping well with changing times. (It’s not a quick show, either — its three acts take more than three hours.) Most of the play takes place in a small apartment in the not-so-nice part of the English resort town where Archie Rice lives with his wife Phoebe (Corrine Koslo) and his father Billy Rice (David Schurmann), a retired vaudeville performer himself. Archie and his family, all of whom drink gin incessantly, are in crisis. Archie’s daughter Jean (Krista Colosimo), who comes to visit (bringing a new bottle of gin) as the play begans, has broken her engagement to a upwardly mobile young businessman; Archie’s son Frank’s been doing time for draft-dodging, and his other son, in the military, is a POW in the Suez conflict. Archie himself is thinking of divorcing the unsuspecting Phoebe and marrying a 20-year-old.
In The Entertainer, the death throes of vaudeville serve as a metaphor for the decline of England itself. As Billy Rice tells his family, back in his day they didn’t need to to bring on nude women to attract a crowd; the women in vaudeville were real ladies, the kind you bowed and tipped your hat to. You could sing a song in a pub without being drowned out by a television. People took responsibility for themselves without relying on welfare. And England wasn’t being pushed around as it was in the Suez.
The acting in The Entertainer is superb. We still remember fondly Benedict Campbell’s great performance as a top song-and-dance man a couple of years ago in Mack and Mabel; Campbell must have found it an even greater challenge to portray mediocrity in The Entertainer. And although Archie Rice is a poor excuse for a human being, Campbell doesn’t so overplay his moral failings as to make him out as a monster. The unintelligent, hard-drinking Phoebe Rice is no more appealing than her husband, especially when she’s in her cups; Corrine Koslo carries off the role remarkably well. The only character with any modicum of likability is Billy Rice, a role that suits David Schurmann to a “t”.
We were awfully curious to see what the new “Festival Studio Theater” would be like and how well it would work; it’s quite good. They’ve put four rows of seats (160 seats in all) on each side of a “stage”; visibility and acoustics are excellent. The space is in the same building complex as the Shaw Festival’s largest theater, the Festival Theater; we suppose it’s usually used as a rehearsal space.
We indulged in a little celebrity-spotting at the performance we saw, as Kelli Fox, formerly a leading actress at the Shaw but now playing Racine in Stratford, arrived at the last minute and took a seat in the row in front of us. (We saw her as Hamlet here in Rochester at GeVa Theatre several years ago.) Ours was a “preview” performance; presumably Ms. Fox was there to support friends in the cast.
Emsworth reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Garson Kanin’s classic American comedy Born Yesterday (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s musical about French artist George Seurat, Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)