THEATRE: The Entertainer; Hampstead, London

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Buoyed up by the success of Look Back in Anger, the first of his plays to be produced, John Osborne widened his canvas considerably with his next offering. The Entertainer, a state-of-the-nation play viewed through the prism of a down-at-heel vaudevillian, induced nervousness at the Royal Court in 1957, but they needn't have worried. Laurence Olivier's central performance as Archie Rice was cracking in every sense of the word and the play was a monster hit.

Exactly 40 years after the Suez crisis, which forms its political backdrop, the play is back in favour. David Ross recently played it at Birmingham and now Michael Pennington gives us a turn in Stephen Rayne's production, first seen at Newbury's Watermill Theatre. Quite what the good burghers of Berkshire made of Osborne's caustic assessment of the class of '56 is open to conjecture, but certainly the first-night audience at the Hampstead theatre seemed a little muted in their response.

The problem is that Osborne's ambition outstrips his achievement. He spent his writing career articulating a scream of frustration at the constrictions of the lower-middle class and the unresolved anger and self- loathing that fuelled him flowers to dramatic effect in the character of Archie, particularly in the powerful musichall sequences. The domestic scenes, however, cannot sustain the political import he ascribes to them. A strong production can go a long way to papering over the cracks, but that's not what it gets here. There's an awful lot of "acting" going on, with as many styles as there are characters. Julian Curry follows Osborne's stage direction that granddad Billy should speak with dignified Edwardian diction, but he lacks the weight to flesh out the underwritten role and ends up with the accent leading the character. Siri O'Neal takes refuge in stoicism as the daughter Jean, while Sam Newman can do nothing with the cypher that is Frank. It's left to Jane Wood as the worn-out wife Phoebe to pull everything together, which she does with gusto, picking up her character and running with it as if her life depended upon it. Her exaggerated comic brio is winning but Stephen Rayne's inert direction never shapes the play into a dramatic whole and although watching Phoebe's life spiral down into despair is undeniably upsetting, hers should not be the most moving performance. Nor does Rayne help Michael Pennington as Archie enough. Archie must be seen to be failing, not something an actor wants to be seen doing. Pennington bravely goes to the other extreme, making Archie look desperate and inept, robbing the play of its pathos and rendering it pointless. Archie is not a lousy performer, it's just that time has passed him by.

At the end of the performance, it was announced that Jack Tinker, the Daily Mail theatre critic had died. His passion and boundless enthusiasm for theatre will be greatly missed. Sadly, Osborne's quite different passion is almost entirely absent from this productionn

To 23 Nov. Booking: 0171-722 9301

David Benedict