17 MARCH 2007, Page 70

Prophet warning

Lloyd Evans

The Entertainer Old Vic King of Hearts Hampstead Treats Garrick Happy birthday to The Entertainer. The ultimate state-of-the-nation play is 50 years old. I’ve never quite bought the idea that Archie Rice, a failed music-hall comedian, is supposed to represent Britain’s decline as a superpower. A clapped-out comic to symbolise the death of a military hegemony? Don’t get it. But at the time this revolutionary play fomented a new kind of ambition for the theatre. A play was no longer just a play, it was a spiritual testament that reached beyond the foyer and into the streets, into the minds of the theatre-shunning majority, and captured the mood of the country. It also raised the dramatist to the status of seer, a dubious promotion which has caused great trouble ever since, leading writers into megalomania, audiences into fruitless boredom and producers into debt. A playwright may make a prophet but he won’t make a profit.

The difficulty with this state-of-thenation stuff is that the state of the nation changes. Watching Sean Holmes’s stylishly spare production I was struck by the stifling gloom that overhangs the play, the nervous anxiety about whether England could cope without an empire. At the time no one knew how things would turn out. Now we do. And things turned out OK. So a central tension is missing, a vital string on the grand piano has snapped and when the show strikes a chord of collective fear all you get, instead of a satisfying ripple of distress, is a vague dull twonk.

And the play broke so much new ground that it may also have dug its own grave. Its kitchen-sink setting contributed to the birth of TV drama, and whether or not you enjoy a weekly dose of soap I doubt if you’ll be diverted by this pre-Cambrian relic of the genre. That said, there are good things here. Pam Ferris brings a ginsoaked magnificence to Phoebe, Archie’s rejected wife, playing the role for maximum pathos like a beast of burden lowing on its way to the knacker’s yard. And Robert Lindsay shows just how little stretched he is by his day-job as a comedy dentist on BBC1. His Archie Rice is a wide-ranging and absolutely original creation. He gets it all, the sleazy charisma, the mischievous sexuality and the boozefuelled bonhomie that lies like a motheaten bedspread over the sour nihilism at the character’s core. He’s also gloriously fleet-footed and dextrous on stage, acrobatic almost, and yet somehow more dignified than Olivier’s seedy and self-loathing portrayal.

If only there were performances like that in Alistair Beaton’s new royal spoof, King of Hearts. The heir apparent is engaged to a Muslim girl and when he accedes to the throne he converts to Islam. Panicking politicians caper about trying to solve the crisis. But what crisis? Beaton’s political radar has conked out. The king’s conversion to Islam would be a problem for a) the royal family and b) the Church of England. But the politicians? No way. They’d start scoring all kinds of political points from their new position as servants, nominally at least, of an Islamic sovereign. The one group who would be seriously disadvantaged — British Islamicists whose war against the state would be instantly robbed of its legitimacy — are ignored. This is a strangely flat sort of satire and its dialogue has all the bite of a well-fed caterpillar. When the PM learns that the CIA has bugged the young prince’s phone, he blurts out that he’s shocked. Pause. ‘Why aren’t we bugging him?’ Boom boom. The synthetic outrage, the pause for breath, the ‘surprise’ reversal in attitude are all completely predictable. And Beaton stretches some caricatures to breaking point in order to force out the laughs. The bumbling security chief, Holbrook, is such a bigot that he draws his gun as soon as he spots a woman in a veil. That doesn’t work because the archetype on which it’s based is a decade out of date. Good satire takes the truth and distorts it. Beaton invents the truth then distorts the invention. I left the show wondering if the person who felt most threatened and horrified by Islam was the satirist. That made me laugh.

Treats is a slender and distinctly creepy play by Christopher Hampton. Billie Piper plays a bullied girlfriend tempted to return to her swaggering, fornicating, charming ex-boyfriend. Ms Piper (fit as a fiddle) is an excellent actress. Kris Marshall is even better. What a nasty play, though. Takehome message: some women enjoy a good slap. Ugly nonsense.