I doubt I was the only person who got rather excited when the Branagh Theatre Company's season of plays at the Garrick was announced earlier this year. But instantly we were faced with a dilemma: five plays to choose from and a limited budget, so which ones to go and see?
Finally, I settled on two: The Winter’s Tale (I wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to see Dame Judi at work) and The Painkiller. But almost immediately, I started wondering what I might be missing in the other three. The intriguing announcement that Sir Derek Jacobi will be playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet piqued my interest, as did the news that Harlequinade would be preceded by a short one-woman play performed by Zoë Wanamaker.
So, when I was offered the chance to see said one-woman play - All On Her Own - followed by the comedy, Harlequinade, I didn’t hesitate. The two very different plays were both written by Terence Rattigan, and were selected to demonstrate the incredible range of his work.
In All On Her Own, recently widowed Rosemary talks to her dead husband Gregory late one night, trying to make sense of what happened to him, and why. It’s an incredibly intense piece, with a gripping performance by Zoë Wanamaker, who holds the audience’s rapt attention throughout. With only a tiny stage area to work with, she nonetheless covers every inch of it, pacing Rosemary's luxurious Hampstead living room as she fills in both sides of the conversation. The deliberately ambiguous ending is really quite haunting, and leaves a lasting impression, inviting each of us to interpret what we’ve just seen in our own way.
With barely a moment’s pause, then, we’re on to the next show, Harlequinade, which I pretty much fell in love with the moment Kenneth Branagh did his first ‘little jump’ (for context - this happens roughly a minute into the play). Harlequinade is an uproarious comedy about a company of actors sent by CEMA - the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts - to present Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’s Tale (see what they did there?) in the Midlands town of Brackley.
The company are led by the Gosports (Kenneth Branagh and Miranda Raison), a married couple and something of a theatrical legend - despite both being completely bonkers, and not the brightest of intellects. The Gosports have been playing Romeo and Juliet for fifteen years, and they’re not about to let the fact that they’re both far too old stop them from continuing. But that, it turns out, is the least of their problems, and over the course of one action-packed tea break, just about everything that could go wrong does, with hilarious consequences.
The star-studded cast are all absolutely perfect. Branagh and Raison shine as the central characters - who, for all their faults, are actually quite loveable - although Tom Bateman is arguably the star of the show as their long-suffering manager Jack Wakefield. He appears to be channelling Basil Fawlty more and more as the play goes on and everything begins to fall apart around him. Zoë Wanamaker returns to the stage in a brief but brilliantly eccentric appearance as Dame Maud, and Hadley Fraser is quite adorable as the over-excited First Halberdier, desperate for his big break in the theatre. The only problem really is there are so many characters that some of them barely get a look in. Stuart Neal feels particularly wasted as the preening Fred Ingram; after a memorable entrance (and much applauded exit), it’s sad that we don’t get to see him again until the final scene.
Harlequinade is full of theatrical in-jokes, poking affectionate fun at the acting industry and the mad world of the theatre. But in the end, the message is one of community and friendship, and it’s hard not to leave without a foolish grin all over your face. One thing’s for sure - having enjoyed this delightful double, I’m now more excited than ever about the rest of the season.
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