Interview by Matt Trueman
It is the part that restarted Laurence Olivier’s career. Corin Redgrave performed it late on in
life. Michael Gambon did so on screen. Three years ago, Kenneth Branagh took it on in the
West End. Now, this autumn, it’s Shane Richie turn…
If the ex-EastEnders star sticks out amongst such illustrious theatrical company, each of
them knighted for their contribution to the stage, there’s a decent argument to say Richie’s
better suited to this particular part than any of them.
Archie Rice, the snarling protagonist of John Osborne’s classic The Entertainer, is a washed-
up music hall star: an old-school comedian and second-rate stand-up still stepping out, well
past his prime, to deliver out-of-date gags.
Richie, more than most, knows what that’s like. He cut his teeth on the comedy circuit in the
late-eighties before finding fame on primetime TV. “None of those guys played the pubs and
clubs,” he says, sat in a swish West End theatre bar. “None of them knew what it’s like to
stand there doing stand-up, dodging beer mats and pint glasses with people going, ‘F-off,
you’re s***.’” Quick as a flash, he adds: “That was last Tuesday…” Still got it, Shane Richie.
The Entertainer is one of the great post-war plays. Written on the quick in 1957, less than a
year after Look Back in Anger launched Osborne’s career at the Royal Court, it is a wildly
ambitious state-of-the-nation play.
Osborne uses a creaking, old-fashioned comedian to parallel Britain’s waning international
influence. As Archie Rice steps out onstage, his act seizing up, Anthony Eden’s government
is stumbling into the Suez Crisis with the Empire winding down. The comic keeps smiling,
but the cracks start to show: debts mount, jokes die, family feuds start to fester.
“I’ve always loved the extraordinary ambition of that vision,” beams director Sean
O’Connor. “People might think Osborne only wrote kitchen sink plays, but it’s absolutely not
that. It’s part music hall, part family drama and part nowhere-land. It’s a very ambitious,
powerful play, but I’ve always felt that something stops the audience getting to it.”
The Entertainer is very much of its time. Opening so soon after Suez, its premiere felt
fiercely present tense but, more than 60 years on, it can seem strangely fossilised. As
O’Connor acknowledges: “It’s set so specifically in 1956 that you need to know all about
Suez and the music hall. It’s become a slightly holy grail set text when, in actual fact,
Osborne always said he really wanted to move people.”
Determined to make it accessible again, O’Connor has transposed the play to the early
Eighties – 1982, to be precise. The parallels are remarkable. “Britain is again trying to
establish its status as an international power,” O’Connor points out. Margaret Thatcher was
on manoeuvres in the Falklands. Britain was changing fast – and beyond recognition.
Comedy, too: old-school club comics like Bernard Manning were on the way out, shown up
and supplanted by a new wave of alternative comedians.
Re-enter Archie Rice – fallen from fame and deeply bitter about it. “So bitter,” says Richie,
“and he brings all that to the stage.” For an actor as clubbable as Richie, that’s not easy.
“I’ve done stand-up, I’ve done game shows. The thing you do is, ‘Come on, I know you love
me, course you do.’ Now I’ve got to fight against that. I’m going to play a comic who’s fallen
from grace and hates – loathes – the people in front of him.”
Richie knows the sort all too well. His dad ran comedy clubs when sexist, racist jokes were
“the staple diet of comics” and he supported his share of “summer season acts” starting
out. The challenge, Richie reckons is finding the moment the mask drops: When do we see
the real Archie, not just the act?
Richie’s intrigued to find out. “I made a decision two years ago: I wanted to play some
characters that would give me my fear back. I wanted to stand in the wings and go, ‘Oh my
god. I don’t know if I can pull this off.’ Fight or flight.” He’s just finished a West End run of
the hit musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, playing an aging ex-drag queen. “I enjoyed
the fear of that,” he says. “I’d missed the butterflies.”
For all it’s challenges, O’Connor believes The Entertainer lives up to its name. His staging will
offer a history of post-war popular culture “from Glenn Miller to Kajagoogoo” to chart
Britain’s decline after World War Two. “Osborne was a real democrat with theatre. He
wanted his plays to be entertaining, so you get the gags, the music and a bit of smut.” At the
same time, O’Connor sees “a family drama as vicious as a Strindberg or a Eugene O’Neill”
and he’s cast stage veterans Sara Crowe and Pip Donaghy, alongside Diana Vickers, as
It’s a fascinating moment to take a classic state-of-the-nation play around the nation.
O’Connor believes it will resonate: “You don’t have to press very far to see its relevance,” he
says, either politically with Brexit or culturally in the wake of right-on comedy. Richie’s
excited: “It’s like it’s no longer going to be the best kept secret. Everyone will get to see
John Osborne’s masterpiece.”
DIANA VICKERS & SARA CROWE JOIN SHANE RICHIE IN THE UK TOUR
Shane Richie takes on the role memorably created on stage and screen by Laurence Olivier,
alongside Diana Vickers and the Olivier award winning Sara Crowe. The show heads to Theatre
Royal Brighton from Mon 21 – Sat 26 Oct.
Director Sean O’Connor, who has changed the setting of Osborne’s play for the very first time from
1957 to 1982, said: ‘I fell in love with Diana’s feisty but vulnerable LV in The Rise And Fall Of Little
Voice when I saw it in the West End and am very excited about what she’ll bring to the role of Jean in
The Entertainer, a young woman whose political conscience has been awakened by the Falklands war
and who struggles in her combative relationship with her feckless father, Archie.’
‘And I’ve long been an admirer of Sara’s extraordinary work and am thrilled that she is taking on one
of Osborne’s greatest female roles as Phoebe, the hapless, hopeless wife of the washed up showman,
Diana Vickers first came to the public eye as a semi-finalist in The X Factor in 2008. Her previous
theatre work includes I Wish My Life Were Like A Musical, Myth, Son of A Preacher Man, Big, The
Rocky Horror Show, The Duck House, Hatched and Dispatched and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice in
the West End. Her film credits include: Awaiting, To Dream and The Perfect Wave and television
appearances include: Josh, Top Coppers and Give out Girls.
Aberdeen born and Olivier Award-winning Sara Crowe most recently appeared as Ruth in the first
UK Tour of Calendar Girls, the Musical, and was seen on screen in the 2019 Comic Relief reboot of
Four Weddings & A Funeral – One Red Nose Day and a Wedding. This Christmas she can be seen on
BBC4 in the ghost story ‘Martins Close’ written and directed by Mark Gatiss.
Osborne’s play was chosen by Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington as one of the greatest plays
of the 20th century.
1982: Archie Rice is a washed-up entertainer playing a summer season. As his soldier son sails with
the Task Force to liberate the Falklands, his daughter Jean returns from campaigning against the
war, and Archie’s professional and personal lives collide with devastating consequences.
Shane Richie has balanced a hugely successful forty year career between theatre, film & TV; and he
has been a regular fixture on prime time television hosting such shows as Lucky Numbers (ITV), The
Shane Richie Experience (ITV), Win, Lose or Draw (ITV), Don’t Forget the Lyrics! (SKY1), Reflex (BBC)
and Win Your Wish List (BBC) to name but a few. Shane is well known for playing Alfie Moon in
EastEnders and is currently performing in the West End in Everyone’s Talking about Jamie.
The Entertainer is a co-production between Curve, Anthology Theatre, and Simon Friend