The revival of Harlequinade, directed by Branagh and Ashford, now playing at the Garrick Theatre (in a 100 minute experience that includes All On Her Own and no intervals) is something of a revelation.
All On Her Own
The title is deceptive. She might be the only person on stage but she is not alone. She shares the space with a Whiskey decanter the contents of which are depleted in a manner, and with an alacrity, that would startle even Claire in A Delicate Balance. And with her deceased husband – he died on the sofa she eyes with venom or sadness or a mixture of both – whose presence is like an ineffable mixer to her Whiskey diet. The expectation of tears, anguish and fallen tumblers is palpable.
This is All On Her Own, Terrence Rattigan’s one-woman short play (written in 1968 as a radio play for the BBC) now revived as part of the Kenneth Branagh season playing at the Garrick Theatre. Directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford, and starring Zoë Wanamaker, this revival is likely to be as good as it gets for this play.
That is not to indicate any kind of derision of Rattingan’s writing: on the contrary, the text is sparse, emotional and intensely human, exploring notions of loss, regret and guilt in insightful ways. You are never in doubt that this is a real tragedy unfolding before your eyes, even if it is laced with acerbic humour and presented like it might be a comfy drawing room comedy.
Rattigan has had a rough time reputation wise; many regard him as old fashioned and an observer of times and peoples that are now just memories. Such judgments are way off the mark. The truth is that, like all great writers, in writing about what he knew, he wrote about universal themes, about matters which can, and do, touch us all.
Here, it is death. The death of a loved one and the consequences thereof. He takes the audience on a small emotional roller-coaster as Wanamaker’s Mrs Hodge talks about and faces the solitude of her empty marital home once more, Whiskey as her companion of choice.
Wanamaker wrings every possibility from the occasion, her voice resonant with despair and passion (with a little indignation every now and then) and her startling ability to maintain a silence which is both uncomfortable and expressive. Her eyes are astonishingly, wonderfully compelling? She takes the melodramatic aspects of the text in her stride, seamlessly making them seem natural and believable. And her line in mocking caricature is exquisite.
It’s a static piece, a fact born from its origins. But it is no less interesting for that, given Christopher Oram’s pretty design and Wanamaker’s lustrous performance. The direction is crisply proficient and, as a whole, it is a worthwhile consideration of issues which are truly universal.
But the real purpose of this production is clear: it sets a mood, definitely and defiantly, of sombre, truthful introspection. Making the attractions of a slight comedy look all that more devoutly to be wished and much more easily savoured. Which brings us to
What an inspirational year 1946 was! It saw the birth of the NHS, the Arts Council and CEMA, the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. CEMA’s purpose was to raise morale and promote British culture and the values for which the Second World War had been fought. It funded tours of plays to regions in the country where the populace had not been overburdened with theatrical choices. In the present political climate, the notion of CEMA seems like a fairy-tale.
It must have seemed that way to Rattigan too, because his play, Harlequinade, pokes a deal of fun at CEMA and at The Old Vic, one of the main providers of its touring productions. But Rattigan is not being savage, but affectionate, as he concocts a delicate, frothy, and terrifically funny theatrical fairy-tale of sorts. Like all great fairy-tales, it has a very clear moral: theatre is wonderful.
The revival of Harlequinade, directed by Branagh and Ashford, now playing at the Garrick Theatre (in a 100 minute experience that includes All On Her Own and no intervals) is something of a revelation. Mostly, Harlequinade is seen in conjunction with The Browning Version, one of Rattigan’s masterpieces, usually as a curtain raiser. To my mind, that combination has never worked and Harlequinade has always seemed pale and irksome by comparison with The Browning Version. But, here, released from the curtain raiser position, placed directly in the spotlight, splendidly set up by the intense darkness of All On Her Own, the play can shine.
And shine it does.
This is a real treat, genuinely delightful, consistently funny, blissfully silly. Pretty much every theatrical trope and caricature is given full, exaggerated and exemplary life: the tatty touring production; the hard-working stage manager trying to cover up for the actors’ excesses; the egos; the hidden secrets; celebrity madness; the desire for the spotlight or any light, as long as it makes you look good; the dipsomaniac grande dame; the hopeless life-long actor; the bit-part players who want their moment to take centre-stage; the policeman and a good truncheon joke; the stars who are too old for their parts but soldier on. These are all whipped together in a froth of goofiness which is infectious.
Branagh is in terrific form as Arthur Gosport, the star and leader of the company performing Romeo and Juliet for audiences he considers beneath them. It takes real skill for a proper Shakespearean verse-speaker to deliver Shakespeare’s words badly, but Branagh pulls this trick off magnificently and his Gosport speaks the words without beauty, understanding or charm. It’s very funny. (What was genuinely shocking was realising that Branagh’s efforts at bad Shakespeare delivery seemed familiar; the Gosport standard is much like what is, these days, routinely delivered on the RSC and National stages.)
Like a prowling, preening tiger, Branagh stalks around the stage, flouncing his wig, issuing commands and insults, trying new business to upstage his co-stars, and providing the furnace which powers this production. His energetic pursuit of laughs, both subtle and unsubtle, reaps real rewards. He is sensational. His ludicrous sword fight rehearsal with Stuart Neal’s perfectly judged, preening matinee idol Mercutio/Fred Ingram is worthy of Monty Python.
Miranda Raison proves just as adept at the comic possibilities of playing a character whose skills are markedly less than her own, and whose beauty has faded where Raison’s has not. Her garish, overdone make-up assiduously placed her Edna Selby as an actress clinging determinedly to the memory of youth and holding steadfastly to her marriage with Gosport to ensure her career. She matches Branagh’s energy wonderfully; her scene with the besotted Policeman (John Dagleish in delightful form, coming on late and snagging laughs with ease) is truly hilarious.
Zoë Wanamaker, like a kind of tipsy dowager empress of the stage, turns on the full diva to great effect. She has a marvellous full faint at one point which stops the show; at another, her lecture about how to properly deliver the word “bitch” is likely to bring tears of joy to your eyes. Dressed as Juliet’s nurse, Wanamaker is like a cross between Lady Grantham and Princess Leia; utterly compelling.
The hardest working character in the piece is stage-manager Jack Wakefield, played here wholeheartedly by Tom Bateman. In all farces, there is a relatively thankless role around which the idiosyncratic, hilarious characters revolve and collide: in Harlequinade, Wakefield is that role, although Rattigan ensures he has a few moments of rewarding humour which are all his own. Bateman delivers the goods, only occasionally pushing too hard. He is the character who has the cathartic moment of realisation – that theatre is worth everything and that nothing and nobody should stand on the way of following your theatrical desires, whatever they are.
The rest of the cast do their bit admirably, although Hadley Fraser need not be quite so gormless for his role to work, and Vera Chok needs to relax and be Miss Fishlock rather than engage in quite so much “acting”. There are finely tuned performances from Jessie Buckley, Jack Colgrave Hirst, and Michael Rouse, who plays the piano sweetly in the musical interludes which help shape the music hall feel of the piece.
Oram’s design here is perfect: stylishly drab to effortlessly represent the rigours of a touring company, but quirky and joyful too. Neil Austin’s lighting is exquisite and funny too, in the sequences where the star couple are trying to find the right level of brightness for their ages.
This production quite revitalises Harlequinade and establishes it as a sharp, insightful piece of comic delight, full of theatrical in-jokes, and with even a nod to a Gilbertian plot solution in the business about how incarceration for bigamy might be avoided. A delightful night at the theatre.