The Entertainer, Playhouse, Liverpool

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The Independent Culture

Nearly half a century on from when it was written, The Entertainer, John Osborne's ruthless comparison between the crumbling of the music-hall world in post-war Britain and the disintegration of the British empire still has a lot to say. The parallels between the Suez crisis and today's conflict in Iraq are all too evident. Osborne's stark, black-and-white picture of cultural stagnation, shallow nostalgia, ill-focused patriotism, racial and sexual stereotyping and dysfunctional family relationships comes across with uncomfortable, muscular directness in John Tiffany's production for the Liverpool Playhouse.

Corin Redgrave takes on the challenging role - created in 1957 as a vehicle for the steely brilliance of Laurence Olivier - of the comedian Archie Rice, the failing but egotistical music-hall performer, who blithely ignores or laughs at his family as his ever-diminishing world collapses around him. Ti Green's minimalist set almost works, with the family stranded in a small room cast adrift in the middle of an empty stage in front of a great brick back wall. Their scenes of desperate domestic life - drinking, sparring, singing, setting the world to rights - alternate with vaudeville performances bravely played out down stage by Redgrave.

As the Entertainer, Redgrave can certainly talk, bluffing his way through routines of cringe-making awfulness in costumes of equal ghastliness (especially the school cap and grey flannel shorts), sticking out his tongue when he can't think of anything better to do, breaking into a shuffling tap-dance step or two, gazing hopelessly at the bored music-hall audience that he is attempting to amuse. Surely even he doesn't believe there's much future in this tired, cynical act. Toward the end, when the cracks in the façade begin to show, it's hard not to be moved.

But it's when with his family that Redgrave is at his most credible, as the serially unfaithful husband and emotionally repressed father, trying to make light of his disastrous finances, turning to false jollity and incessant prattling to keep at bay the bogeymen of empty houses, tax inspectors and a life devoid of any meaning whatsoever. The gags and put-downs of his show spill over into his everyday conversation - that knife edge between performance and life, fantasy and reality, has long since been blurred. There's little hope of any meaningful discussion here for his daughter Jean, given a slightly wooden portrayal by Eileen Walsh, as if more unsure of her character than the role suggests. Jean has been away and knows there's another world but can't fathom her way out to it; for her half-brother Frank (Mark Rice-Oxley), the only hope is to get beyond the four walls of this stultifying living-room and find that world.

Chattering incessantly over the gaping void that is her marriage and the disappointments life has dealt her, Paola Dionisotti brings both humour and poignancy to Phoebe, Rice's long-suffering wife, who has stuck by him despite his cruel philandering and his self-centred way of life. And in Leslie Randall's virtuoso performance as Archie's old dad, Billy, with trenchant opinions on everything from busty barmaids to the grubby lot of rogues in government, the language resonates and Osborne's words glitter as they come tumbling out.

To 7 February (0151-709 4776)