The play is in three acts, sub-divided into thirteen scenes. Some are set in the Rice family's house, and others show Archie Rice on stage at the music hall.
- Billy Rice, a retired music-hall star, settles down at home and is interrupted by his granddaughter Jean, making an unannounced visit. They talk about Archie (Billy's son, and Jean's father) and Phoebe, Archie's second wife, Jean's stepmother. Billy speaks negatively of them and of modern society in general.
- In a music hall, Archie opens the show with a short would-be comic patter and a brief song and dance routine. The song is called "Why should I care?" and ends, "If they see that you're blue, they'll look down on you, So why should I bother to care?"
- At the house Billy, Phoebe and Jean drink and talk. Jean explains she had a disagreement with Graham, her fiancé, breaking their engagement. They also discuss Archie's sons, Mick and Frank. Mick is in the army, fighting overseas, but Frank refused to be conscripted and served a six-month jail sentence in consequence.
- Back at the music hall, Archie delivers further ingratiating comic patter and sings a jingoistic song in praise of the British Empire and personal selfishness ("Number one's the only one for me!")
- At the house Archie returns from the theatre to find his daughter Jean visiting. He tells them his show did not go well, and makes some casually bigoted remarks about race and sexuality. He proposes a toast to the twentieth anniversary of his not paying income tax. Billy is unimpressed. Archie learns of Jean's broken engagement but appears unconcerned. Phoebe drinks too much and becomes emotional and retires to bed. Billy also turns in, leaving Archie and Jean alone. He reveals that Mick has been taken prisoner.
- The next day at the house, the rest of the family find out from the newspaper that Mick is a prisoner of war. They take comfort from the report which says he will be sent back home. Billy and Phoebe talk about Archie's lack of understanding. Billy talks about the good old days and snaps at Phoebe for talking too much. Phoebe talks about Bill, Archie's brother, and how he bailed Archie out of a lot of trouble and has treated Phoebe kindly. Frank and Archie come home. Archie agrees Bill has been good to them. Frank wants to celebrate Jean's visit and Mick's homecoming. Archie gives a monologue about how crazy the family is and how it is hard for Jean to understand them well since she is the sensible one. Billy comes in from the kitchen and Phoebe finds that he has been eating the cake she has bought to welcome Mick back home. She becomes hysterical and Archie tries to calm the family down.
- At the music hall, Archie's patter consists of a series of insulting remarks about his wife. His song is "Thank God I'm normal", a hymn to mediocrity.
- Back at the house, members of the family bicker. Frank starts a sing-song; three generations of the Rice family join in singing "The Absent Minded Beggar" and for a short while the atmosphere is happy. Phoebe shows Jean a letter from her brother's daughter. It is about her brother's business in Canada. She is thinking of having the family move to Canada to help the business. Archie dismisses the idea. Left alone with Jean, he says that behind his eyes he is dead and nothing touches him any more. He tells her that his affections have moved from Phoebe to a much younger woman. Phoebe comes back and says the police are at the door. Archie assumes it is the income tax man. Frank comes in and announces that Mick has been killed.
- Frank, alone at the piano, sings about bringing Mick's body back.
- In the house, Billy reminisces nostalgically. Archie says he does not care about emotions. Jean criticises him bitterly and Phoebe tries to defend him against her accusations. Jean tells Frank about Archie's love affair. Archie tries to bring Billy out of retirement to give the music hall show a boost. Jean disapproves because Billy is too old and frail. Archie tells Jean that Billy has sabotaged Archie's affair with the young woman by seeking her parents out and telling them that Archie is married.
- At the music hall, Archie announces that Billy will not appear tonight or ever again. He exits, and the scene fades into an image of Billy's funeral cortège.
- Two separate conversations take place between Jean and her boyfriend Graham on the one hand and Archie and his successful brother Bill on the other. Jean refuses to come back to Graham and insists that her place must be with Phoebe. Archie refuses to join Bill in Canada, though recognising that ruin and jail await him if he stays in England.
- At the music hall, Archie does not give his usual slick patter but discourses philosophically, and after a reprise of "Why should I care" he leaves the stage in darkness. "Archie Rice has gone. There is only the music," reads the stage direction.