The Entertainer (play)

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Cover of 1957 edition of script, showing Laurence Olivier as Archie Rice

The Entertainer is a three-act play by John Osborne, first produced in 1957. His first play, Look Back in Anger, had attracted mixed notices but a great deal of publicity.[1] Having depicted an "angry young man" in the earlier play, Osborne wrote, at Laurence Olivier's request,[2] about an angry middle-aged man in The Entertainer. Its main character is Archie Rice, a failing music-hall performer. The first performance was given on 10 April 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre, London. That theatre was known for its commitment to new and nontraditional drama, and the inclusion of a West End star such as Olivier in the cast caused much interest.[3]


The play is in three acts, sub-divided into thirteen scenes. Some are set in the Rice family's house, and others show Archie Rice on stage at the music hall.

Act 1

  • Billy Rice, a retired music-hall star, settles down at home and is interrupted by his granddaughter Jean, making an unannounced visit. They talk about Archie (Billy's son, and Jean's father) and Phoebe, Archie's second wife, Jean's stepmother. Billy speaks negatively of them and of modern society in general.[4]
  • In a music hall, Archie opens the show with a short would-be comic patter and a brief song and dance routine. The song is called "Why should I care?" and ends, "If they see that you're blue, they'll look down on you, So why should I bother to care?"[5]
  • At the house Billy, Phoebe and Jean drink and talk. Jean explains she had a disagreement with Graham, her fiancé, breaking their engagement. They also discuss Archie's sons, Mick and Frank. Mick is in the army, fighting overseas, but Frank refused to be conscripted and served a six-month jail sentence in consequence.[6]
  • Back at the music hall, Archie delivers further ingratiating comic patter and sings a jingoistic song in praise of the British Empire and personal selfishness ("Number one's the only one for me!")[7]
  • At the house Archie returns from the theatre to find his daughter Jean visiting. He tells them his show did not go well, and makes some casually bigoted remarks about race and sexuality. He proposes a toast to the twentieth anniversary of his not paying income tax. Billy is unimpressed. Archie learns of Jean's broken engagement but appears unconcerned. Phoebe drinks too much and becomes emotional and retires to bed. Billy also turns in, leaving Archie and Jean alone. He reveals that Mick has been taken prisoner.[8]

Act 2

  • The next day at the house, the rest of the family find out from the newspaper that Mick is a prisoner of war. They take comfort from the report which says he will be sent back home. Billy and Phoebe talk about Archie's lack of understanding. Billy talks about the good old days and snaps at Phoebe for talking too much. Phoebe talks about Bill, Archie's brother, and how he bailed Archie out of a lot of trouble and has treated Phoebe kindly. Frank and Archie come home. Archie agrees Bill has been good to them. Frank wants to celebrate Jean's visit and Mick's homecoming. Archie gives a monologue about how crazy the family is and how it is hard for Jean to understand them well since she is the sensible one. Billy comes in from the kitchen and Phoebe finds that he has been eating the cake she has bought to welcome Mick back home. She becomes hysterical and Archie tries to calm the family down.[9]
  • At the music hall, Archie's patter consists of a series of insulting remarks about his wife. His song is "Thank God I'm normal", a hymn to mediocrity.[10]
  • Back at the house, members of the family bicker. Frank starts a sing-song; three generations of the Rice family join in singing "The Absent Minded Beggar" and for a short while the atmosphere is happy. Phoebe shows Jean a letter from her brother's daughter. It is about her brother's business in Canada. She is thinking of having the family move to Canada to help the business. Archie dismisses the idea. Left alone with Jean, he says that behind his eyes he is dead and nothing touches him any more. He tells her that his affections have moved from Phoebe to a much younger woman. Phoebe comes back and says the police are at the door. Archie assumes it is the income tax man. Frank comes in and announces that Mick has been killed.[11]

Act 3

  • Frank, alone at the piano, sings about bringing Mick's body back.[12]
  • In the house, Billy reminisces nostalgically. Archie says he does not care about emotions. Jean criticises him bitterly and Phoebe tries to defend him against her accusations. Jean tells Frank about Archie's love affair. Archie tries to bring Billy out of retirement to give the music hall show a boost. Jean disapproves because Billy is too old and frail. Archie tells Jean that Billy has sabotaged Archie's affair with the young woman by seeking her parents out and telling them that Archie is married.[13]
  • At the music hall, Archie announces that Billy will not appear tonight or ever again. He exits, and the scene fades into an image of Billy's funeral cortège.[14]
  • Two separate conversations take place between Jean and her boyfriend Graham on the one hand and Archie and his successful brother Bill on the other. Jean refuses to come back to Graham and insists that her place must be with Phoebe. Archie refuses to join Bill in Canada, though recognising that ruin and jail await him if he stays in England.[15]
  • At the music hall, Archie does not give his usual slick patter but discourses philosophically, and after a reprise of "Why should I care" he leaves the stage in darkness. "Archie Rice has gone. There is only the music," reads the stage direction.[16]


The original music for the play was composed by John Addison.[17] Melodies by Thomas Hastings ("Rock of Ages"), Arthur Sullivan ("Onward Christian Soldiers" and "The Absent-Minded Beggar"), and George Ware ("The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery") are also incorporated.[18]


The original production at the Royal Court was directed by Tony Richardson, with décor by Alan Tagg.[19]

Original cast

In September, the show transferred to the Palace Theatre in the West End, toured and returned to the Palace.[20] During the run Joan Plowright left the cast and was replaced by Geraldine McEwan.[20] Plowright rejoined the cast when the production opened in New York in February 1958.[21] In the same year a touring production was presented in the British provinces, starring John Slater as Archie and Bobby Howes as Billy.[22]

Revivals have starred Max Wall (Greenwich Theatre, 1974);[23] Peter Bowles (Shaftesbury Theatre, 1986);[24] Corin Redgrave (Liverpool Playhouse, 2004);[25] and Robert Lindsay (Old Vic, 2007).[26]

In 1974, Jack Lemmon appeared as Archie in a two-hour film version of the play made for American television,[27] and Michael Gambon starred in a production for the BBC in 1993.[28]

Garrick Theatre will host The Entertainer from 20 August 2016 to 12 November 2016 with Kenneth Branagh as Archie Rice. Director will be Rob Ashford and designer Christopher Oram.[29]

Critical reception

In The Observer, Kenneth Tynan wrote, "Mr Osborne has had the big and brilliant notion of putting the whole of contemporary England onto one and the same stage ... He chooses, as his national microcosm, a family of run-down vaudevillians. Grandad, stately and retired, represents Edwardian graciousness, for which Mr Osborne has a deeply submerged nostalgia. But the key figure is Dad, a fiftyish song-and-dance man reduced to appearing in twice-nightly nude revue."[30] The Manchester Guardian was lukewarm, finding the climax of the play "banal" but added, "Sir Laurence brings to the wretched hero a wonderful sniggering pathos now and then and ultimately gives the little figure some tragic size. It is no great play but no bad evening either."[31]The Times made no connection between the play and the condition of post-Imperial Britain, regarding it as almost "the sombre, modern equivalent of Pinero's Trelawny of the Wells."[32] By the time of the 1974 revival, The Times was agreeing with Tynan: "Everyone remembers The Entertainer for its brilliant equation between Britain and a dilapidated old music hall," but added that the play is also "one of the best family plays in our repertory."[33]


A 1960 film version was adapted by Nigel Kneale and John Osborne. It was directed by Tony Richardson and starred Laurence Olivier, Brenda De Banzie, Roger Livesey, Joan Plowright, Alan Bates, Daniel Massey, Thora Hird and Albert Finney. Olivier was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance.

In November 2008, a radio version, adapted by John Foley, was broadcast on BBC Radio 7, featuring Bill Nighy as Archie, Cheryl Campbell as Phoebe, David Bradley as Billy, Sarah Jane Holm as Jean and Bertie Carvel as Frank.

See also


  1. Tynan pp. 41–42
  2. "Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain". 29 January 2010. 23 minutes in. BBC. BBC2. Missing or empty |series= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. e.g. The Daily Express, 10 April 1957, p. 4
  4. Osborne, pp. 11–23
  5. Osborne, pp. 23–25
  6. Osborne, pp. 25–31
  7. Osborne, pp. 31–33
  8. Osborne, pp. 33–42
  9. Osborne, pp. 43–59
  10. Osborne, pp. 59–61
  11. Osborne, pp. 61–73
  12. Osborne, p. 74
  13. Osborne, pp. 74–82
  14. Osborne, p. 83
  15. Osborne, pp. 83–85
  16. Osborne, pp. 86–89
  17. Tynan, p. 50
  18. Osborne, pp. 13, 41, and 64–65
  19. Osborne, p. 10
  20. 20.0 20.1 "Mr. Ian Carmichael in New Play", The Times 25 November 1957, p. 3
  21. Atkinson, Brooks. "Theatre: Olivier in 'The Entertainer'; John Osborne Play Opens at Royale", The New York Times, 13 February 1958, p. 22
  22. "The Entertainer without Olivier", The Manchester Guardian, 29 July 1958, p. 5
  23. Ellis, Samantha, The Guardian, 5 November 2003;
  24. The Guardian, 7 June 1986, p. 12
  25. Gardner, Lyn, The Guardian, 21 January 2004;
  26. Koenig, Rhoda: "Osborne's 'The Entertainer' gets West End revival", The Independent, 1 March 2007
  27. The Times, 16 December 1974, p. 7
  28. The Observer, 28 November 1993, p. 199
  29. The Entertainer, London Theatre Direct. Accessed: 20 April 2015
  30. Tynan, p. 49
  31. Hope-Wallace, Philip, The Manchester Guardian, 11 April 1957, p. 5
  32. The Times, 11 April, 1957; p. 3
  33. Wardle, Irving, "Classic reading of Archie Rice", The Times, 3 December 1974


  • Osborne, John. The Entertainer, Faber and Faber, London, 1957
  • Tynan, Kenneth. Tynan on Theatre, Penguin Books, London, 1964

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