Harlequinade - 9 November 2015 Review

A hugely entertaining piece of theatre

Under the title of “Playbill”, Rattigan’s comedy Harlequinade was originally the companion piece to his more serious drama The Browning Version. Here, Kenneth Branagh presents his own Rattigan double-bill as Harlequinade plays alongside the rarely performed monologue All on Her Own. After seeing the two together at the Garrick, it is difficult to imagine a better companionship.

Whilst the writing of All on Her Own is somewhat mediocre, after all it was written at a time when Rattigan’s critical reputation was at its lowest, Zoë Wanamaker excels. Wanamaker wrings the monologue for all it is worth, bringing out the depth in Rattigan’s understanding of the human heart. With only her whiskey decanter to accompany her, Rosemary Hodge speaks to her dead husband, at times transforming into him. Wanamaker switches skilfully between the neurotic, curious Rosemary into a northern builder with a deep voice and wide gait. With both characters she grasps their complete desperation and ultimate need to be needed, transforming from a self-assured woman into a broken, despairing wife. Branagh’s direction shines in this short, intense piece and it is an excellent showcase for one of Britain’s best actors.

Harlequinade is an altogether different production, written when Rattigan was considered to be one of Britain’s greatest practising playwrights. Co-directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford, this is a production of the finest quality. A play-within-a-play, the plot follows the trials of a thespian couple and their backstage team as they attempt to put on The Winter’s Tale and Romeo and JulietChristopher Oram’s design is the perfect portrayal of an amateur set without actually being amateur, creating a wonderfully three-dimensional space of which the actors use every element.

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Rattigan described Harlequinade as a ‘farce of character,’ and certainly every typical thespian caricature can be found in this brilliantly cast play; from the exhausted stage-manager Jack Wakefield, who is played with complete conviction by Tom Bateman, to the ensemble actor who is given his first ever line. Hadley Fraser shines in this part as First Halberdier and demonstrates excellent comic-timing throughout the performance.

Branagh as Arthur Gosport and Miranda Raison as Edna Selby are simply brilliant as the starring couple who cling to their youth by playing Romeo and Juliet. Branagh has an unrivalled grasp of comedy, causing the audience to explode into laughter after simple gestures and the throwaway delivery of his lines. Raison is perfect as the overly dramatic actress, desperate to remain in the limelight despite her shortcomings. Of course, Zoë Wanamaker completely steals the show with her performance as the eccentric, alcoholic Dame Maud. A particularly hilarious moment was listening to her resonating voice as she teaches Mr Burton the correct way to pronounce ‘bitch’.

With other meta-theatrical productions such as The Play That Goes Wrong playing the West End, Harlequinade provides a refreshing take on this style by being entirely traditional, creating organic laughter throughout the production. With slick transitions and an excellent cast, Harlequinade is a hugely entertaining piece of theatre with a message about the quality of theatre that resonates heavily with current West End productions.

Branagh has created something excellent in choosing to present these plays together; the contrast between the two allows All on Her Own to seem more poignant and Harlequinade to seem more hysterical. If these performances are anything to go by, this will be a successful inaugural year for the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company.

star-rating-5.0

Reviewed by Susannah Rose Martin.
9 November 2015, Garrick Theatre