The man who became a household name when starred as Alfie Moon in BBC 1’s EastEnders is playing Britain’s biggest and best provincial theatres in a new production of The Entertainer. It’s been filling venues across the country and will arrive at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre on October 7 and feature until October 12 then Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn from November 18-23, with a strong supporting cast including Diana Vickers and Sara Crowe. Richie, therefore, is facing an inquisition with Weekend.
But first, a sandwich.
He’s on a lunchtime break from rehearsals when we catch up with him and, frankly, is famished. “Can I call you back in 15 minutes,” he says, before dashing off for sustenance.
It’s Richie all over. He’s a man of the people, a hugely experienced and high quality performer who has kept his feet on the ground and is still driven by a sense of normality. The Entertainer is pretty much the perfect role for him. Set in 1982, it features the lead character, Archie Rice, who is a washed-up entertainer playing a summer season. As his soldier son sails with the Task Force to liberate the Falklands, his daughter Jean returns from campaigning against the war, and Archie’s professional and personal lives collide with devastating consequences.
Shane Richie stars as Rice, a role memorably created on stage and screen by Laurence Olivier, alongside Diana Vickers and the Olivier award-winning Sara Crowe. And for the first time since its premiere in 1957, John Osborne’s classic has been given a vibrant new setting and an electric new vision in Sean O’Connor’s exciting production. It is a classic work and was chosen as one of the greatest plays of the 20th Century by Michael Billington (chief theatre critic of The Guardian).
Richie is relishing the role. “After doing it and rehearsing it I can understand why a lot of actors don’t do it. It’s a tough gig. It really is. There’s so much to take on board. Not only in terms of the performance but there’s also some really heavy scenes going on with the family. It’s like juggling a lot of balls and trying to keep them all up in the air at the same time.
“Because I’ve done stand-up comedy in the past, it’s like learning to do all that again and in front of an audience. But you have to play it very differently because the piece is set in 1982. So the humour and the gags are not ones that I’m used to telling; I don’t do racist, sexist, homophobic gags. So telling them and finding a way of doing them is tough. But when we get it right, it’s incredible.”
And yet despite the unvarnished nature of his character, Richie can find much within Rice that he relates to. After all, he started out on the comedy circuit during the late 1980s before being propelled to stardom. He knows what it’s like to die in a small club and he’s brought that experience to bear.
“None of those guys played the pubs and clubs,” he says. “None of them knew what it’s like to stand there doing stand-up, dodging beer mats and pint glasses with people swearing at you to get off.
“I’ve done stand-up, I’ve done game shows. The thing you do is, ‘Come on, I know you love me, course you do.’
“Now I’ve got to fight against that. I’m going to play a comic who’s fallen from grace and hates – loathes – the people in front of him.”
The role has pushed Richie out of his comfort zone. And he also delights in taking his vision of Archie Rice in front of a live audience, rather than a TV camera.
“I like that. When you do something like a soap, you only learn those lines for a moment because as soon as you’ve done them you can forget them. But with scripts like this and an 11- or 12-week tour, you really have to go deep and learn it because you’re doing it for eight shows a week.”
He took a conscious decision a couple of years ago to play characters that would challenge him.
“I made a decision two years ago: I wanted to play some characters that would give me my fear back.
“I wanted to stand in the wings and go, ‘Oh my god. I don’t know if I can pull this off.’ Fight or flight.”
He’s loved teaming up with Diana Vickers, the singer, songwriter and actress who came to fame via the 2008 X Factor. She’s since unveiled a fashion line and launched a successful acting career which has featured Little Voice, in which she impersonated singers such as Shirley Bassey, Edith Piaf and Judy Garland. Playing alongside Sara Crowe is also a blast. The Scottish film and stage actress is best known for her comedy roles and featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral while her West End appearances have included Private Lives, Twelfth Night, Hay Fever and The Constant Wife.
It’s not just those two. The Entertainer features a first rate creative team, including behind-the-scenes staff who provide Richie, Vickers and Crowe with the perfect platform each night.
“The whole team is brilliant. There are five of us in the show and everyone is really supportive and everyone has their own story to tell on stage. It’s a really interesting piece. If I wasn’t in it I’d definitely want to come and see it.”
Being on the road is nothing new to Richie. He tends to leave things until the last minute, not planning too far ahead. “I just think about where I’m going to be next week and I ask my assistant to ring up and find me somewhere to stay. At a lot of the venues, I can get home. I’ve also got a lot of friends dotted around the country so I tend to stay with them a lot. I’m really lucky that after 40 years I’ve got pretty much all of the theatres covered.”
He’s familiar with Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury and seems to recall doing a stand-up gig in the picturesque Shropshire market town some years ago. “It’ll be the first time I’ve played the new Theatre Severn though, I’m looking forward to it, and The Grand, in Wolves.”
The discipline of playing in a relatively small space, rather than a vast TV studio, is one that Richie enjoys. “With television, you’ve got all day to get it right. You know, if you get it wrong ‘cut’ and you do it again. So it’s a different kind of adrenalin. But with theatre, you don’t have a safety net. If you get it wrong, everyone’s going to see you get it wrong. Hopefully we’ll be clever enough so that people won’t see any mistakes. But you need to know the script back to front. You don’t get the butterflies when you’re doing TV.
“The other difference is that if you get it right on stage you get an immediate reaction, which is great. And also, if you get it wrong on a Tuesday or Wednesday you have another show to get it right or to improve it. So the show will constantly be growing and I really am looking forward to that.”
Of course, he was always drawn to John Osborne’s remarkable writing when he was offered The Entertainer. The man who created Look Back in Anger and other kitchen sink dramas was a colossus who lived the latter part of his life in south Shropshire. Following his death, his home was turned into a writer’s retreat, called The Arvon Centre.
Richie says: “Osborne was a real democrat with theatre. He wanted his plays to be entertaining, so you get the gags, the music and a bit of smut.”
Richie is grateful that Eastenders propelled him into the position where he remains a huge draw. The show changed his life and made him front page news. And in the years that have passed, he’s seldom been out of work – rather, he’s been able to pick and choose the roles that he’s taken.
“To be honest, it’s only when someone mentions TV that I’m reminded of it. It’s not something that I even think about. If I’m out with the family and we’re having dinner somewhere and I see someone filming me, I always look over my shoulder and imagine there must be someone famous behind me or something. Then I realise it’s actually me. I just don’t think about it. My kids keep me grounded as well. I’ve got five kids and I don’t get away with anything with them. So it’s not something I really think about. I’m always happy to say hello to people if they say hello. If they’re nice to be I’ll be nice back.”
In The Entertainer, Richie is following in redoubtable footsteps. The role was played by a number of great actors, from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh, and he’s happy to be able to put his stamp on it. He has drawn on the experience of his father running clubs in London, which allowed Richie an early insight into the working men’s clubs of that city.
“I come from a big Irish family so every weekend we’d be at the clubs and I would see these comedians come on stage and do Irish gags, homophobic, racist, sexist and people would laugh. Then when I started in the business, in the eighties, it’s been well documented that I did stand up. I did shows like Live From the Piccadilly, Live From the Palladium, Seaside Specials, I did summer seasons in clubs, holiday camps, I get depressed thinking about it.
“Unlike a lot of the actors that have played this part before me, Olivier, Branagh, I mean there is no denying that they are wonderful actors, but they have never done stand up. They have never stood on a stage, in a club or at Butlins when kids are doing knee slides in front of you, there’s someone playing on the fruit machines or waiting for bingo to get started and I have. I have been that comedian and I have stood there doing my thing for all these people have come to see Little and Large or Jimmy Cricket and I have died on my arse because this audience had been fed a staple diet of your Jim Davidson’s your Bernard Manning’s, your Jim Bowen’s. That’s all they knew so I would have to go up and perform material which was totally not right for them and died on my ass. So, I know. I know what it’s like, I know who Archie Rice is, I know how it feels inside and I know what is like to be dead on stage.
“I have been there. I have had beer bottles thrown at me in Colchester. I remember in Wales, coming off stage, I was 19 or 20, and back then you had to do three half hour spots. I remember doing this particular club, going on and doing the material that I was doing then and just dying a death. No one was interested, they were just talking. I remember getting changed in the dressing room inbetween spots and there was a duo there too and the average age of the duo was dead. And one of them said ‘Hey, if you don’t mind me saying, I don’t think you are very funny.’ He said’ Do you know any Tom Jones? Why don’t you go and sing because you are not very funny?’”
In The Entertainer, Richie is brilliantly funny. There is humour and pathos in his portrayal. And with TV offers never far away, fans would be wise to catch him while they can. No one can tell – least of all Richie – how long his re-emergence on the stage will last. So catch him while you can.