An earlier version was first published on The Reviews Hub Website.
It’s been eight years since Kenneth Branagh was last in the West End so the decision to form a theatre company and take up a prolonged residency at the Garrick has caused a great deal of excitement. Having been away too long, Branagh is clearly intending to make up for his absence with 5 plays in 10 months – an ambitious plan but one that evokes a more traditional age of theatre. It opens with his superb and near-perfect interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale shown alongside the lesser known Rattigan farce Harlequinade performed in rep until January.
But the evening begins with a late addition to the programme, an unrelated Rattigan monologue All On Her Own performed by Zoe Wannamaker. It’s a useful two-for-one deal for an audience and ensures the evening reaches ninety minutes with the two together. Rosemary Hodge sees the last of her party guests off and begins a conversation with her dead husband. As the drinks flow, Rosemary feels his presence in the room and begins to imitate his voice in order to understand the cause of his death. Through this one-sided conversation she explores the tone of their marriage, hinting at not showing enough appreciation for him when he was alive. We also see that they were quite different people, Rosemary a prim, middle class woman in a well-appointed home, and her husband a builder with seemingly down-to-earth opinions – like chalk and cheese – but she clearly retains a deep affection for him. It’s a thoughtful and touching performance from Wannamaker who uses the comedic moments well for balance as she imitates her husband’s northern voice, exploring the pain of separation from someone she didn’t realise she loved. In this affecting short monologue Wannamaker takes us through a huge range of emotional responses as her anger and fear overtake her, leaving us questioning how much of this is grief and how much guilt.
Linking the two pieces is a short film about CEMA a post-war policy to bring theatre and music beyond London which is referenced in Harlequinade having provided the funding for the theatre troop in this story to visit a northern town. As the curtain rises on the main event we see a garish looking set complete with wobbly scenery – the location is the dress rehearsal of a hammy production of Romeo and Juliet starring Arthur Gosport (Branagh) and Edna Selby (Miranda Raison) the famous theatrical couple in the midst of the balcony scene. Soon they are gently bickering over their cues and interpretation, as well struggling to manage the mini-dramas within the company. But in the wings is a girl who claims to be Gosport’s daughter that threatens to derail the production and brings startling news that could affect Arthur and Edna’s long-established marriage.
Rattigan’s rarely performed and delightful farce may well be given a new lease of life by Branagh’s lightly charming production. What prevents this from becoming as garish as its scenery is the restraint with which Ashford and Branagh direct, as well as the carefully judged layers of performance which ensure there is a noticeable difference between the consciously exaggerated acting of Arthur and Edna in character as Romeo and Juliet, and the often oblivious people they are when the lights go up. It’s quite close to the bone on several occasions with its hilarious depiction of ‘luvvies’ so immersed in the theatre that real-life becomes a haze and much of the humour derives from the way in which trivial events like Arthur deciding whether to jump on a bench in the balcony scene assume cataclysmic importance while the real-life possibility of bigamy barely registers with him. It is utter nonsense, completely daft and laugh-out-loud funny, but by subtly emphasising the somewhat human side to these people it keeps the audience with them, rather than appearing as grotesques. And it’s comforting to know that some of the silliness Rattigan noticed in the theatre in the 1940s still resonates today – maybe not so much has changed after all.
Branagh displays an unexpected but delightful gift for comedy as Arthur Gosport, both deliciously hammy as Romeo and humorously self-involved as himself. There are a lot of in-jokes but Gosport’s entire submersion in the theatre and obsession with ageing create some of this production’s finest moments including his complete inability to understand the real world. On finding a baby in the wings his only concern is that it may ruin someone’s exit. Branagh even manages to make a wig joke funny in what is a wonderfully vacant performance – as Gosport’s stage manager says “you can’t scatter a void”.
Tom Bateman is excellent as Jack Wakefield, the exasperated stage manager who seems to be the voice of sanity amidst the actorly chaos, as he manages their production and their lives, at the expense of his own – although Bateman cleverly lets us see that for all Wakefield’s frustration, he’s as wedded to the theatre as any of them. Miranda Raison as the squeaky Edna is delightfully fey when it suits her but also incredibly sharp when her marriage or more importantly her part is threatened which is fun to watch, and Hadley Fraser as First Halberdier deserves a mention merely for delivering a line about London critics never noticing him. The whole piece builds to a nice farcical pace which sits well alongside its rep partner as well as providing some much welcome cheer in the West End.
Harlequinade is a great companion piece to The Winter’s Tale, as well as an advert for the forthcoming version of Romeo and Juliet next year, and a chance to see a rare Rattigan. It may lack the wit and sparkle of the finest Noel Coward comedies but this production has bags of charm. And what a delight it is to see Branagh back in the West End after so long. As an influential force in modern theatre the formation of Branagh’s Company is setting a high standard with its inaugural season. Welcome back Ken, we’ve missed you.
Harlequinade / All On Her Own are at the Garrick Theatre until 13 January. Tickets have largely sold out but check regularly for returns. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1