The Entertainer, Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

The series of 50 rehearsed readings of in-house plays that will celebrate the 50 years of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court kicked off with a work by John Osborne. This was not Look Back in Anger, the piece which inaugurated the Royal Court revolution; there will be a special gala evening for that on 8 May. Instead, the season was launched with Osborne's follow-up play, The Entertainer (1957), starring Robert Lindsay as the clapped-out comic Archie Rice, and directed by the fierily eloquent David Hare.

Set during the Suez Crisis, the play draws a suggestive parallel between the last gasp of the music-hall tradition and the fag-end of England's imperial power. The rehearsed reading inevitably felt a bit subdued. While Robert Lindsay can claim a closer relation to the culture of variety than most actors, he relied on personal charm when he performed Archie's dog-eared, mirthless routines ("Well I 'ave a go, don't I? I do - I 'ave a go"). There wasn't the underlying desperation of this anti-hero who recognises his contempt for himself, his material and his audience, and his numb horror at no longer being able to care.

But the bareness of the proceedings, with just an electronic keyboard and drums as accompaniment, helped you to attend more intently to the play's superb, savage rhetoric and ironies. Osborne may have been the Court's first groundbreaking dramatist, but he was a man who was always temperamentally more drawn to mourning a romantically conceived past than to drawing up blueprints for a brighter future.

The reading brought home as never before how deeply the play's heart and head are in conflict. Archie's father, Billy (lovely Sam Kelly), a gentlemanly relic of the old days, is the touchstone of dignified self-respect and professionalism. But the playwright's affection for this character distracts him from the link between Edwardian certainties and the predicament of his own generation.

Meanwhile, Archie's daughter Jean (a nicely understated performance by Anna Maxwell-Martin) expresses her convictions in a manner that sounds oddly Existential.

It's nicely apt that the initial play in the Royal Court's 50th birthday series boasts a protagonist who is himself celebrating an anni- versary: 1956 marks the 20th year since Archie Rice last paid income tax.

The series continues to 24 March (020-7565 5000)