Rice is the clapped-out vaudevillian who personifies the decline of Britain in a piece, set during the Suez crisis, that draws a potent parallel between the last gasp of the music hall tradition and the fag end of imperial power (“Don’t clap too hard, we’re all in a very old building”).
Branagh rises to the occasion with a performance that is never less than thoroughly arresting, even in those moments when you wonder if it gives off the full reek of the character’s failure, while Rob Ashford’s freshly-conceived revival rounds off this Company’s year-long residency at the Garrick with panache.
In tuxedo, dickie-bow and boater, Branagh brilliantly conveys Archie’s louche hand-on-hip suggestiveness as he delivers his wince-makingly crummy, innuendo-ridden gags. The radiantly determined smile and the dainty execution of the song-and-dance numbers here slyly verge on being a knowing send-up of the indomitable trouper spirit as well as a desperate embodiment of it. The self-loathing has a faint aura of heroism.
In Osborne’s play, these routines punctuate scenes of domestic drama involving Archie’s boozy, bickering family as they await the return of their soldier son Mick from capture in Egypt. Here Christopher Oram’s beautiful design, dominated by a crumbling gilt proscenium arch, gives the digs in the domestic scenes, too, a decayed theatrical context.
This pushes to an extreme the clear indication in the play that Archie doesn’t know how to stop performing and puts on an act with his intimates to keep troubling emotions at bay. Ashford’s revival additionally points up how much Archie’s stage material is influenced by his domestic circumstances – as, say, when a blazing family row segues seamlessly into a routine that’s like a manic crack-up. The flow is continuous.
The fine performances prove that this conceit does not downgrade the other characters, even if Sophie McShera is too shrill and young-sounding as the ardent, recently politicised Jean, who has been to a rally in Trafalgar Square. Jonah Hauer-King, as her pacifist half-brother, Frank, gives a very affecting, sensitive account of this young man’s confused naivete and protectiveness towards his father. Greta Scacchi vividly captures the touchiness and squally mood-swings of Archie’s weary, put-upon, working-class wife, while Gawn Grainger is perfection at conveying the Edwardian staunch pride and garrulous irritability with the modern world of his ex-showman father.
I never really believed that Branagh’s Archie is “dead behind the eyes”, as he tells his daughter, or that the chorus girls in a tacky 1950s revue would be a resplendent as they are here. But, if you can’t get a theatre ticket, this is a production that would be well worth catching when it is broadcast in cinemas. Branagh’s performance, which is a bit too fundamentally genial at the moment, is bound to deepen and darken during the run.