Gawn Grainger to replace John Hurt in The Entertainer

Gawn Grainger in The Entertainer, The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company. Picture: Johan Persson

Gawn Grainger in The Entertainer, The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company. Picture: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

John Hurt will be replaced by Gawn Grainger in Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s The Entertainer

or Gawn Grainger, The Entertainer is written by “one of the greatest playwrights of the twenty first century”. So when he was approached by The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company to star in their latest production of John Osborne’s play, he didn’t take much persuading.

Showing at the Garrick theatre, the Islington local will be playing the role of Billy Rice, father of the protagonist, failing showman Archie Rice played by Kenneth Branagh.

“For me, Billy Rice is a fantastic part in one of the greatest plays,” says Grainger. “It was originally written at a time where things in the country were quite bleak and people felt England was going to the dogs. I think that this feeling is something that remains very relevant to this day.”

The dynamic between Grainger and Branagh’s characters is complex. The character of Billy Rice has spent his life as a successful show man who then retired at the height of his career. His son Archie struggles to make a living in post-war Britain where the popularity of the music hall is in rapid decline.

“They are father and son, so there is an intense love between the two of them. But as his father, my character puts Archie down a lot. Billy was successful, so keeps telling his son how things should be done. A lot of Archie’s lack of success can be attributed to a change in the times. Music halls had started dying out by then which is something Billy doesn’t seem to understand.”

Like his character, Grainger has had a very long and successful career with a diverse range of work in his repertoire. Born in 1937, his first performance was as the Boy Prince in Ivor Novello’s Kings Rhapsody at The Prince’s Theatre when he was only twelve. It was at that point that he “fell in love” with the profession.

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Since then he has performed as part of the inaugural Lawrence Olivier company in 1976 and continues to perform on the London stage, with recent theatre credits including The Crucible, Macbeth (The Globe Theatre) and The Cherry Orchard (The Young Vic).

He said: “For The Entertainer I’m working with some really talented actors. I tend to find that the better the actors, the higher the stakes. We also get on really well which is fantastic.”

Grainger and Branagh will be joined onstage by a host of acting talent including Downton Abbey’s Sophie McShera as Jean Rice and Emmy Award winner Greta Scacchi as Phoebe Rice.

When details of the show were originally announced at the beginning of the year, it was John Hurt who was originally cast in the role of Billy, but he had to leave on the advice of his doctor following health problems.

Grainger admits that while he’s thrilled with the role, he’s also upset that Hurt won’t have the opportunity to perform.

“John is a great actor and would have been brilliant in the role, but he is also a great man and friend as well. It’s very exciting to be taking over from him but it is also incredibly sad that he won’t be able to play the part.”

While the show will be located at the Garrick Theatre for the course of its run, there’s also the opportunity for international audiences to see the production as it will be live streamed into cinemas across the world. Grainger believes this is a “wonderful” opportunity to engage with an international audience.

“The fact that the production is going to be shown live is wonderful. And it’s something I’ve done before. It’s still great but it’s also very scary as there’s no room for error. If you make a mistake then a lot of people are watching.”

“What’s great for both us as actors and for theatre-lovers is that live streaming is an opportunity for more people to see the show.

“The performance isn’t just available to audiences in London, or even people in the UK as the live stream will be shown in other countries all over the world.”

The Entertainer starts at the Garrick Theatre on August 20 and runs until November 12.