Deemed one of the great plays of the 20th century, John Osbourne’s 1957 play The Entertainer tells the story of washed-up comic Archie Rice – a man who feels left behind in a rapidly changing world. It stars Shane Richie, best known as loveable rogue Alfie Moon in BBC One’s EastEnders. Here he tells Gill Sutherland about taking on the role that one critic described him as being “born to play”.
Were you familiar with The Entertainer, and do you think it’s one of the best modern plays ever written?
As a young actor I was always interested in anything by new playwrights – David Hare and David Mamet or anything by John Osborne, I wasn’t a big fan of Shakespeare – Joe Orton and writers like that had more appeal.
Twelve years ago I was approached about The Entertainer by director Sean O’Connor, who I’d worked with on EastEnders and Minder – who suggested the play was worth a revisit. Then last year he managed to get the rights from the Osborne estate to set it in 1982. That really pricked my interest because setting it in that period gives it even more relevance. Little seems to have changed – we’re a divided country.
Was John Osborne a visionary? I think so.
Osborne wrote in the preface to The Entertainer: “Music hall is dying, and with it, a significant part of England” – is that what Brexit is about, a perhaps misguided attempt to hold on to something that no longer exists?
I don’t think it’s just Brexit, I think socially, culturally, and politically there are big changes going on and that was evident when he wrote it in 1957, and even though we’ve moved it to 1982 it still feels really relevant to what’s happening today. The original backdrop was the Suez Crisis, and ours is the Falklands War.
Ours is a throwback to those club comics of the 1980s – how we were divided culturally and how things changed with the arrival of alternative comedy and the demise of the old guard… against what was happening with the Tory government. It does feel like it’s happening all over again.
Archie Rice is one of those old school stand ups that’s on the way out. Tell us about him and if you can relate to him.
I would never ever compare myself to the greats – Olivier, Robert Lindsay, Gambon and Branagh – who have all played Archie Rice before me, but the advantage I seem to have over those wonderful actors is that I played clubs. My dad was running clubs in the 1970s, and I’ve stood in the wings at theatres, clubs, holiday parks – and I’ve seen the demise of performers like Archie Rice first hand. I’ve worked as an entertainer at Pontins, so when it comes to the stand up I know how to work an audience – I know how to tell a gag.
Every actor, performer, entertainer and musician goes on stage to be liked. Whereas Archie Rice loathes and detests his audience; he doesn’t care how they feel about him. There’s a wonderful speech when he talks about being dead behind the eyes and where he is at in that particular moment in his life. I know how he feels – I’ve seen it first hand with comedians I’ve known who’ve had a fall from grace. When comics like Alexei Sayle, Jeremy Hardy and Ben Elton came along it was like a breath of fresh air.
I’m in awe of who has played Archie before, I’m so lucky to be given the opportunity – I jumped at the chance to play him.
Archie is a tragic figure, a failure – does it affect you playing him at all?
If I can get the first act right, then the second half takes the audience on an emotional journey and it is very uncomfortable to watch. The stand-up gets darker and darker, by the end I am a mess, physically and emotionally. I try and leave it at the stage door, but sometimes on long journeys home I think about it… My career has had hills and troughs. I’ve been out of work and scraped by; other times there have been riches thrown at me – I may not have embraced those jobs artistically but I had bills to pay.
You’ve been on our prime time TV screens for many years – as a gameshow host and soap star. Is it a frustration that you might not be thought of as a serious actor?
I made a decision as a poor young actor that I didn’t want to struggle to find work, so I leant to sing and dance. I got involved in light entertainment and game shows, even though I never thought I would.
I used to get frustrated that perhaps I wasn’t taken seriously, but not now. I understand how the business works; you’re only as good as your last gig. It’s interesting how people clock you – some will be EastEnders fans some will never have heard of me… But I don’t go out and say come and see me I’m a serious actor, but I do take what I do very seriously. If you’re expecting to see Alfie Moon on stage don’t come, you’ll be disappointed!
Explain why you would swap the ease of being on screen for a touring stage show, which must be gruelling.
Being away from home is the worst part. [Shane has two grown-up sons from his first marriage to Colleen Nolan; and three children aged eight to 13 with his second wife, actress Christie Goddard]. From the outside looking in you might see the applause and adulation at the end of the stage show; what you don’t see is the travelling, unpacking, psyching yourself up to go on, and then 18 hours later doing it all over again. But that is part and parcel of the business I chose to be in. And I’m fortunate, most actors are out of work most of the time.
What is the allure of getting onstage?
There’s always something different; live stage plays are organic changes. You do it again and again, and you’ll find something different, or a powerful emotion comes in. I love that, it’s what still gives you the butterflies while you’re in the wings. You’re in the dark, there’s a spontaneity to it.
Why should people come and see The Entertainer?
It’s a tough watch, but it’s an opportunity to come and learn something about ourselves. I hold a mirror up to the audience, to mankind. And it’s interesting how some audiences laugh with me and some laugh at me. It reveals something about yourself what you find funny and what you find uncomfortable viewing. The Entertainer’s not jolly or fluffy, but there are pieces that are laugh out loud or break your heart. It’s theatre that will move you.
I’ve just done a TV show for Channel 5 called Caravanning with Shane Richie where I go caravanning! I have brilliant fun staying at caravan parks, it reminds me of being a youngster – and it’s very warts and all, which I love. Then I’m returning to the West End to play a drag queen in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
Would we ever see you on the Royal Shakespeare Company stage in Stratford?
I would love to play Shylock one day! But people might say ‘What’s that bloke off the telly doing up there..?’
WHEN AND WHERE: The Entertainer is on at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre from 15th to 19th October. Tickets are available from www.belgrade.co.uk