Writer: Terence Rattigan
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
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 Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and 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. It’s a thoughtful performance from Wannamaker who uses the comedic moments as she imitates her husband’s northern voice to explore the pain of separation from someone she didn’t realise she loved. In this affecting short monologue Wannamaker leaves 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. 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 marriage.
Rattigan’s rarely performed and delightful farce may 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 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.
Branagh displays an unexpected 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 amid 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 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.
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.
Runs until13 January 2016 | Image: Johan Persson