It was the unexpected casting of Laurence Olivier as Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer which made its premiere in 1959 so memorable. Here was the foremost classical actor not only cast as a camp, sleazy, fifth-rate music-hall comedian, but also appearing at the Royal Court Theatre, home to all the angry young men.
Archie Rice is one of the great 20th-century roles and it was a major turning point in Olivier’s career, bringing him into the modern, kitchen-sink mainstream. And 50 years on, Olivier’s performance remains the definitive one.
Some people thought the character was based on 1930s comedian Max Miller. It wasn’t. Archie Rice isn’t a great music hall artist; Max Miller was. Osborne uses the dying music hall as a metaphor for Britain on its last imperial legs: “Don’t clap too hard, lady – it’s an old building.”
Kenneth Branagh at Garrick Theatre, not wanting to give an imitation Laurence Olivier, has turned Archie Rice into a hoofer. His music hall acts and his final exit line – “You’ve been a great audience. Let me know where you’re working and I’ll come and see you” – would catch the era much better and have far greater impact if they were all acted in front of a genuine music hall drop-curtain, instead of being acted in the same setting as his lodgings.
Noël Coward’s Home Chat has not been seen for nearly 90 years. In his autobiography, Present Indicative, Coward says the comedy has some excellent lines and a reasonably funny situation, but that he was not entirely pleased with it: “It was a little better than bad, but not quite good enough and that was that.”
The premiere in 1927 did not go well. The leading lady dried on a number of occasions and the pace was funereal. The gallery and pit booed at the curtain call. Coward took to the stage. “We expected a better play!” shouted a galleryite. “I expected better manners!” snapped Coward. The notices next day were all bad and the play ran for only 38 performances.
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