Friday, 27 November 2015

Theatre review: Harlequinade and All On Her Own

When life gives you harlequins, make...

Harlequinade has a reputation as a very minor part of the Terence Rattigan canon. It's certainly not notable for its depth, but it's no doubt also suffered from often being paired with one of the playwright's masterpieces, The Browning Version, for no other reason than their both being one-acters. Playing in rep with The Winter's Tale in the SirKenBranCo season, it's paired with a different Rattigan piece, but it's no less of an unusual combination: The evening opens with Zoë Wanamaker in the monologue All On Her Own as widow Rosemary, returning from a date to an empty house. Sitting in the room where her husband died of an overdose, she has a conversation with him about whether it truly was an accident as the coroner ruled, or a suicide; she replies to herself on his behalf, expressing thoughts she's been afraid to say out loud before.

There's a few nice moments but, while I might feel differently if I saw it in a more intimate space, All On Her Own feels like it's obscure for a reason, never coming to life in the large theatre. Back in the same seat as last time and looking at the back of someone's head, this was basically a radio monologue for me, especially as Wanamaker spends its climax sitting on the floor. It's not a piece that makes much of an impression, but probably would be quite moving as a radio drama; I wouldn't be surprised if it's been turned into one before, or if Radio 4 picks up this performance.

The stage gets deeper - helping somewhat with the sightlines - and the action much sillier for the main event, Harlequinade. As a post-war morale booster, well-known theatrical couple Arthur (Kenneth Branagh) and Edna (Miranda Raison) are leading a Shakespeare rep company on a regional tour. Things start going wrong during the dress rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet in a small Midlands town, including one of the cast (John Shrapnel) storming off in a huff and needing to be replaced by an overly enthusiastic spear carrier (Hadley Frasier,) and Arthur trying to audition actresses for a future production of The Winter's Tale in the middle of rehearsing this one.

But bigger problems await Arthur in the form of a young couple, Muriel (Pirate Jessie Buckley) and Tom (Jack Colgrave Hirst,) who've been wandering around the stage looking for him. Muriel's his long-lost daughter, with a reminder of a first marriage that isn't quite as over as he thought. Harlequinade is obviously something of a love letter to the theatre from Rattigan, and particularly to the various eccentricities of the people who work in it, and which make it difficult but unique to work in; it's gently farcical and characteristically witty - some of the lines so good you even notice when Tom Bateman says them.

Once again Branagh directs along with Rob Ashford, and the whole company - Zwanamaker also returns for a cameo as a theatrical grand dame - throw themselves into the good-natured chaos. Playing these two pieces together remains a strange decision, other than as demonstrations of the breadth of Rattigan's writing, because they really don't slot together well. But Harlequinade itself is a hit, and in stark contrast to The Winter's Tale where they offered a dull heritage presentation of a classic, here Ashford and Branagh successfully blow the dust off a play that's been much maligned in the past.

Harlequinade and All On Her Own by Terence Rattigan is booking in repertory until the 13th of January at the Garrick Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

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