Better to be a has-been than a never-was – one underlying theme from this play which could be seen quite cynically to reflect a broad context of Britain today.
Such ambiguity presents a formidable challenge to a theatre company in reviving John Osborne’s penetrating drama about disillusion and bitter self-appraisal.
It dates back nearly 60 years but yields a startling relevance to modern times of internal political upheaval, controversy over military forays into foreign lands and even Brexit.
William Wilkinson’s intense production focuses on lost British glory in terms of the good old days of music hall and its social lifestyle, reflected by the last-gasp efforts of a fading stand-up comic facing a new order of society. This role, once a non-Shakespearean landmark for Laurence Olivier, is undertaken by Phil Reynolds with courageous vitality.
He conveys the downward spiral of Archie Rice who is forced to be funny and in so doing he successfully delivers a stage act of outdated patter and wearyingly contrived songs. His performance is extraordinary in its credibility before a ‘real’ audience.
Behind these scenes Archie emerges with the practised superficiality of a joker constantly citing the joys of draught Bass and reviling the taxman, aspects again finely tuned in Reynolds’s central performance. He is brilliantly matched by Wendy Morris as wife Phoebe, oozing cosy amiability as she sinks further into an alcoholic stupor – a portrayal that so cleverly blends hilarity with a sense of tragic hopelessness.
For all its basic power, the play’s construction is occasionally dated, notably in the static nature of the first 20 minutes. Lengthy pauses in a ‘waiting for Archie’ sequence seem to hamper the early stages of the piece as well as Steve Smith’s development of Archie’s once-famous dad which becomes so well realised later.
It remains, however, a notable achievement for local theatre.