War is hell on some playwrights, but others, recognizing allegory when they see it, have crafted durable dramas that escape the yellowed-newspaper tint of time. When Great Britain and France attacked Egypt in 1956 in an effort to seize the Suez Canal, John Osborne suddenly saw the old imperial England self-destruct — the same, Establishment-run country he’d assailed that year in his landmark play Look Back in Anger. Instead of joining the wrecking crew of left-wing opinion, however, he chose that moment to write a eulogy for empire — not the colonial rule of Pax Britannica but for the manners, self-sacrifice and common decency that had governed daily British life for so long. Most important, he chose not to editorialize about the specifics of the Suez debacle but to make one besotted English family a microcosm for the country’s defeats.
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The focus of The Entertainer, now revived at the NoHo London Music Hall, is the Rice family. Breadwinner Archie (Frank Collins) is the shabby, philandering MC whose world of song, dance and double-entendre comedy has increasingly been usurped by strippers and rock & roll. His daughter, Jean (Vanessa Forster), returns to the family home after a crisis of faith brought on both by her participation in an anti-war protest and by a row with her boyfriend. She’s comforted by grandfather Billy (Jim Sanderson), a retired relic of British vaudeville’s Edwardian heyday, and by her stepmother, an addled woman named Phoebe (Barbara Benner). Later, the group is joined by Jean’s pacifist brother, Frank (Nicholas Veneroso).
Osborne structures the play as a kitchen-sink drama interspersed with Archie’s spotlit, variety-show appearances, during which the depth of his cynicism becomes apparent. When Archie sings about looking “out for good old number one,” announces “thank God I’m normal” or confesses that he’s “dead behind the eyes,” he’s describing the Britain Jimmy Porter railed against in Look Back in Anger. Meanwhile, an ominous backdrop emerges with news of the capture of Jean’s soldier brother, Mick, by Egyptian troops. His fate, as well as that of Archie’s scheme to fund a new show, hover uneasily above the Rice family’s gin-fueled, elliptical conversations. Osborne saw in the vanishing British music hall, with its crumbling empire theaters, a political metaphor as potent as the Weimar cabaret.
It would take Harold Pinter, a few years later, to crystallize the open warfare of a family homecoming, and also to capture the English fondness for reminiscence and fear of foreigners. Still, The Entertainer’s charms stand up nicely today, and the story’s poignancy resonates, thanks to the frightening similarity between Britain’s end-of-empire gamble in the Middle East then, and America’s hubris there half a century later. Needless to say, it requires a deeply committed and subtle theater company to bring out this parallel without clubbing its audiences on the head. Unfortunately, the NoHo London Music Hall is not the company for this job.
Whether it’s the cast’s frequent lapse into British accents, the show’s dithering blackouts or the program notes inexplicably setting the play in 1957 — after the Suez conflict — this evening never escapes a rumpus-room primitivism. Nor do the liberties the company has taken with the script work. Admittedly, my references to the play rely upon the published text that has all those extra characters who don’t appear in this production, not to mention missing song lyrics and chunks of dialogue. However, even, with the cuts director Frank Collins has made, presumably with the permission of the Dramatic Publishing Company, his show doesn’t feel streamlined. Quite the opposite.
It’s somewhat understandable why Frank Collins as director would slightly reshuffle the scene order so that, unlike in the original play, his character appears before any of the others, but I’m frankly mystified about why tiny things have changed, such as the number of drinks Jean says she’s had on the train (from four to two), and certain word choices (sweet replaced by chocolate).
No doubt the company’s budget dictated the restrained reach of its production, which has none of the elaborately symbolic gauzes Osborne called for. Instead, Collins has added two strippers (Heidi Appe and Chloe Lake), mostly to usher in scene changes and to keep Collins company during some of Archie’s routines. Collins, who is miked for this small venue, lacks the manic desperation you’d expect — and would hope — to find in a human metaphor.
The Entertainer displays Osborne’s gifts as a eulogist, although some outbursts foreshadow the hater he would become. (Fourteen years later, Osborne’s former champion, Kenneth Tynan, would write in his diary, “He has become a friendless and mean-spirited man who feeds on hostility and only feels fully alive when he is hating or hated.”) Look Back in Anger offers an unexpected scene in which Osborne pays a reluctant but genuine tribute to the past, represented by the figure of Colonel Redfern. The playwright’s infatuation with the Edwardian past, however, moves from an air kiss to a mash note in The Entertainer, as Billy continually rhapsodizes about his youth: “We all had our own style, our own songs — we were all English. What’s more, we spoke English. It was different. We all knew what the rules were.”
To be fair, Osborne wasn’t alone in his fondness for the period just before World War I, and in this he joined writers ranging from J.B. Priestly to George Orwell. Where Osborne’s nostalgia trips him up is when Archie recalls hearing a black blues singer in an American nightclub. His memorable line about wishing “to God I could feel like that old black bitch with her fat cheeks, and sing” isn’t embarrassing for its racial content so much as for its mawkish sentimentality.
THE ENTERTAINER | BY JOHN OSBORNE | NoHo London Music Hall, 10620 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Through April 20 | (818) 762-7883