Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 7th October, 2019
Archie Rice, washed-up, old-school, tax-dodging comic treats his audiences with scorn, but they’re not lapping it up anymore. Meanwhile, at home, there’s a son away in a war, and Archie’s second wife is feeling the strain. Daughter Jean is reaching her limits – she’s not going to put up with the old ways for much longer, while grandpa Billy Rice rants about immigrants and gives rise to friction… Archie’s home life is no picnic either.
Director Sean O’Connor brings John Osborne’s play forward in time from the Suez Crisis to the time of the Falklands Conflict. But for all the pop music of the era and the references to Shake & Vac and Rising Damp, this is very much a play for today. The bigoted, anti-immigrant attitudes expressed by old Billy, laughable in an Alf Garnett kind of way, have resurfaced in today’s Britain – and so Billy (played with conviction and credibility by Pip Donaghy) isn’t funny but alarming. He’s a Sun reader, so what can you expect? Headlines from that ‘newspaper’ are projected across the scene, and the anti-Argentine rhetoric of then is strikingly similar to today’s bile levelled against the EU, with whom we are not even at war.
Diana Vickers is a steadying presence as young Jean, whose boyfriend troubles bring her back to the family flat. Jean becomes the ‘angry young woman’ of the piece, letting rip in a tirade that is a long time coming, while Alice Osmanski witters and frets effectively as Archie’s second wife Phoebe. Christopher Bonwell has some strong moments as young Frank but of course the show belongs to the star.
Shane Richie is on excellent form as Archie Rice, from his off-colour, sexist jokes, to his Max Wall-esque clowning, and his cheesy cabaret singing. Richie not only performs Archie’s act, he acts his decline – Don’t go expecting an evening of comedy! This is heavy duty stuff, about the dynamics of this dysfunctional family at a time of political and economic uncertainty; it’s about personal failure, and also the human condition. “I’m dead behind the eyes,” Richie claims acidly, before accusing all of us of being in the same state. It’s a bitter moment in a bitter play.
The drama takes place on a conventional box set, but it’s kept back, behind a false proscenium arch, physically keeping the characters at a distance from us, the edges and tops of the flats clearly in view. We are not part of the scene, not part of the family, but held at bay so we can examine them from afar. Osborne’s scathing writing holds these people up, not for our admiration or sympathy, but for our ridicule and disparagement. Characters step forward, speaking their opinions in broad asides, again reminding us of the artifice of the production.
It’s a challenging piece but as a statement on the country before its post-Brexit decline, it couldn’t be more on the money. Fortunately for us, Shane Richie is more of an entertainer than poor Archie Rice could ever hope to be, giving a masterful performance with genuine star quality.