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The Entertainer a timely reminder for UK

AAP logoAAP 23/10/2016 Suze Metherell

Kenneth Branagh's theatre company chose John Osbourne's 1957 play, The Entertainer, well before the UK's EU referendum, but the actor thinks it's been a prescient choice.

The play is set against the backdrop of the 1956 Suez Canal crisis and likens Britain to a failing music hall - once grand and full of pomp, now a little shabby and trying to figure out its relevance.

"You feel it in the room, whether it is a response as directly to when Frank says 'what's the point of hanging out in this cosy, little corner of Europe?'" Branagh says, of the play currently running in London's West End Garrick Theatre. "The national identity crisis feels strongly resonant,"

Branagh plays the role of Archie Rice, a down-on-his-luck performer, prone to drinking a lot of gin and then ranting to his family.

The kitchen-sink drama also features several naff musical numbers, where Branagh, with four chorus girls, tap dances across the stage and sings bawdy, patriotic songs.

Through the three generations of the Rice family, the play explores a national crisis of confidence in the aftermath of World War II, as Britain wakes up to its shrinking empire and questions its place in the world.

"There was still a nation that was punching so far above its weight finally arriving at a moment where it appeared not to be doing that," Branagh said. "The national crisis of identity seems strongly mirrored in a year where people are saying 'I just want my country back', well at least 52 per cent are saying that."

The UK vote to leave the European Union is similar to the Suez Canal crisis, in the sense the nation tried to be "cool and intellectual because it finds difficulty in dealing with the massive emotional underpinning of these attitudes", Branagh said.

But in the end, the referendum "was something that was very, very emotive in a nation that slightly prides itself on being above being ruled by the heart".

Sixty years ago Archie was first played by Laurence Olivier. It's not the first time Branagh's career has taken inspiration from the English actor, both in film and on stage.

"I've been so used to doing classical roles that were played famously by other people it's just part of what we do, but (Olivier) casts a big shadow."

The West End, just like the music halls of the 1950s, is looking for a way to fund productions and keep the lights on.

Branagh's theatre company has had a full season in residence at the Garrick Theatre, and is now taking several of its plays, including The Entertainer, to global audiences, via the silver screen.

The play has been filmed using a special camera that "floats" between the actors, taking long shots and then put together for cinema audiences, and will be show in Australian cinemas from November 19.

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