This sparkling Terence Rattigan double bill is the strongest of the opening plays in Kenneth Branagh's West End season
An old-fashioned rep company flogging creaky versions of Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’, led by an old luvvie whose career has, frankly, seen better days…
Okay, it would be manifestly churlish to apply that description to the Kenneth Branagh Company, especially as we won’t see their ‘Romeo and Juliet’ until next year. But with a modicum of naughtiness that summary of Terence Rattigan’s sparkling backstage farce ‘Harlequinade’ can be applied to the overwrought ‘Winter’s Tale’ that it’s running in rep with. And the bizarre thing is, Sir Ken surely knows that on some level.
In ‘Harlequinade’, he stars, brilliantly, as blithely un-self-aware old thesp Arthur Gosport, a man who would surely applaud Branagh’s ludicrously overwrought turn as Leontes in the concurrently-running ‘Tale’. There were moments where I had the mad thought that Branagh and Rob Ashford – who co-directs both plays with him – had staged their overripe ‘Tale’ purely as a set up for the punchline of ‘Harlequinade’. Obviously not, but the programming exhibits a level of self-consciousness the ‘Tale’ could have done with.
‘Harlequinade’ is a proto-‘Noises Off’ comedy that has the reputation of being a bit of froth, and fair enough. But before it starts, though, there’s a well-judged shot of pathos with a performance of the short Rattigan monologue ‘All On Her Own’. In it Zoe Wanamaker plays a widow drunkenly dissecting the failure of her marriage to her late husband. She cuts a slightly absurd figure, adopting her husband’s Huddersfield accent to enter a dialogue with herself – but Wanamaker’s performance is a miniature tour de force as she mercilessly drives herself to confront the failings of her marriage and her culpability for them.
On to the main play, and Branagh is genuinely fantastic as Gosport, a jaded but hopeful old ham whose youthful indiscretions catch up with him as he tours a creaky production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ around the provinces. Branagh really is a great comic, bringing a John Cleese-ish deadpan charm to the part of an absurd man entirely detached from reality, sheltered from the outside world by his long-suffering company. It’s giving me a headache to even contemplate the fact that he can do this and not see how silly his Leontes is, but that’s showbiz, I suppose.