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Shane's heartfelt tears for a clown raise the bar

Archie Rice is one of those comedians who likes to take refuge behind crude jokes about his mother-in-law. She's so ugly, he tells his audience, that a Peeping Tom knocked at the front door one night and pleaded with her to close the curtains.

Now, as the Falklands War unfolds around him, even the trusty old punch lines have gone sour. If Archie had his brush with stardom, the limelight turned away long ago. All he has left is a hard drinking habit and a sense of self-loathing that is palpable. Only the tax man really takes an interest in what he's doing these days.

Back in the 1950s, John Osborne's acerbic play was credited with reviving Laurence Olivier's career as an actor and in more recent years the character of Archie Rice has been taken on by the likes of Michael Gambon and Kenneth Branagh. But I suspect that Shane Richie brings to Archie an earthy watchability that those theatrical knights would have struggled to achieve, a quality that his own career as stage comedian, soap star and prime time TV presenter will have prepared him for.

The updated setting to the Falklands conflict of 1982 resonates strongly with a Belgrade audience who can well remember the time - all Human League, Mrs Thatcher and a nostalgia for Double Diamond. And in scenes from Archie's increasingly toxic family life, Richie is well-supported by a strong cast, notably Pip Donaghy as Archie's father Billy, a performer from another age who can still claim shreds of self-respect.

But it is Richie who draws a standing ovation with a performance that bleeds pathos and vulnerability and yet still manages to hit the comedy high notes. The old jokes may be dead on their feet but that old balloon dance is an absolute hoot.

Pictures: Shane Richie (Archie) above and Richie with Pip Donaghy (Billy Rice), by Helen Murray.

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