Much as I enjoyed Bob Light’s invective in his review of The Entertainer (September SR), I have to disagree with him.
Osborne was part of the post-war generation that had had hopes in the 1945 Labour government but had become disillusioned. The Entertainer used realism but introduced a new element. Osborne’s music hall motif is a metaphor for Britain but also for popular culture, once vigorous and unifying but now grubby and taken over by those only interested in making money.
The play’s subject is the decay and disillusion that its characters feel. However for Osborne and perhaps for the audience this clapped out routine still holds some ambiguous glamour. Osborne and his characters rail against the world and the audience. The dominant politics of 1957 — reformism, pacifism, as reflected in Archie’s son Frank’s refusal to serve and his daughter’s attendance at a peace rally — was not up to the challenge of reshaping the world. Thus even the “left wing” characters are feeble.
The UKIP successes of the last few years often took place in the same run down seaside towns the play is set in. Branagh’s Archie is deliberately drawing on Nigel Farage, all surface and bonhomie. But as Archie says, “Look at my eyes; I’m dead behind these eyes”.
He is charming and ruthless; he sacrifices his own father, his source of vitality, to try and stay afloat, but fails.
In its indictment of war, the production is relevant. It also crucially identifies a cruel nostalgic backwardness as still a force in British politics. Archie is someone who has cynically used up his chances and has run out of time. By extension Britain has too.
The mordant final line, “Don’t clap too hard, we are in a very old building”, applies not just to the music hall.