10th of April, 50 years to the day when “The Entertainer” opened at the Royal Court, starring Lawrence Olivier. The Old Vic marked this anniversary by inviting the audience to participate in a Q&A with Robert Lindsay, Pam Ferris and director Sean Holmes. It was chaired by Michael Coveney.
One complimentary glass of red Mouton Cadet wine later, we all swarmed into the theatre, scattering ourselves around the – mainly – front of the stage, everyone pretty much wondering who would sit down in the “RESERVED” seat to the left of the stage, halfway back. Your mind is bending. Who could it be? Kevin Spacey making a surprise visit back from NY to be there for the anniversary of this John Osborne play? Peter O’Toole looking for a way to deliver constructive criticism to the cast? A journalist whose arse needs special greasing before the next production?
Mind you, it was none of the above. Maybe it was reserved for the spirit of Osborne himself. Whether it was someone getting a seat and deciding not to show up or being occupied by the spirit of a great American playwright, the chair remained empty.
Of course, my decision to not sit up front and rest my feet on the stage proved to be a bad idea. I was hoping to be able to use my voice-recorder and report back from the hour-long session, but as it turns out there was slight trouble with projecting voices beyond the first few rows. (At this point you’re probably thinking I have a hearing problem for mentioning projecting before when I was practically hanging from the chandelier at the National Theatre – but if I have trouble hearing, so does my ultra-sensitive voice-recorder.)
As a result of this, I got nothing. Well, except what I remember 18 hours later.
They started off asking Robert Lindsay if he felt intimidated by the fact that he would, as far as many are concerned, be filling Lawrence Olivier’s shoes. Also, the old story about Larry giving Robert Lindsay his blessing to do this role. Robert said he had “certainly not given his blessing” but that he said it was a fantastic part to play. Robert said Olivier had come to see his play (“Me and my Girl”?) twice, at a point where he was very ill and had a nurse with him, but that he had very much enjoyed the performance and given Robert a piece of advice; “Try flipping a sugar cube with a spoon into your hat.” He had tried and had gotten a standing ovation. 😉
Pam Ferris went onto talking about her first acting experience at the age of 13 in New Zealand, the move down under caused by her sister starting a family there and driving their mother nuts by not bringing the grandchildren to the UK, and forty years later she’s still doing it. Though she obviously, at some point, made the move back. She said – when asked if they compared themselves to the ‘original cast’ – that she was against doing it. She reads reviews, and wants to know what people think, but she won’t base her performance on what someone else thinks or someone else did before.
Sean Holmes was asked later if he had considered “updating” the play, as far as 1956 war references were concerned. He was adamant that the play was still current considering a son was taken capture in “The Entertainer” – drawing a parallel to the recent situation with British soldiers being held in Iran. He mentioned an example of another play this had happened with during the outbreak of the Iraq war. They had decided to put the play on a year in advance, and suddenly it was current again with a recent incident.
The biggest laugh of the evening came when Robert Lindsay was asked about who he enjoyed playing the most, Archie Rice or Tony Blair. Especially when he said, when asked who he liked the most, “Oh, Archie Rice, definitely!” Robert was telling us about how he’s terrified of doing the music-hall sequences every night, because every time something new happens in the audience. He has to reply in character (“or not as the case may be”) and again I’m sure he was referring to comments like, “I know where you live!” that was freaking him out on the first preview night. He said that he had been lucky enough to have a bunch of non-theatre-goers from where he grew up come see the play. Some of the younger members had been very moved by the play, obviously connecting to the mental abuse that’s going on, and added dryly, “Oh, and we got a 50-people standing ovation at the end.”
Someone from the audience rounded off by saying he saw the original “The Entertainer” at the Royal Court 50 years ago and had never forgotten how Lawrence Olivier had been such a prominent character that made everyone else fade. It made me excessively curious how this production would compare, a question that Robert Lindsay had already answered in part when he said one of Osborne’s friends had come see the play, and said it was a production he would have loved.
Well, after hearing that, nothing else matters.