Monday, 21 December 2015

Theatre Review: Harlequinade / All On Her Own

I'm not sure I've ever been so in love with a theatre company that I've bought a snowglobe to advertise the fact. Thank goodness the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company has come along to remedy that!

All joking and snowglobes aside, I'm just staggered at the quality of this company. Whether on or off stage it’s mindbending and the potential range of work that they can do fantastically as a result is ridiculously vast. Their opening double bill is a pretty audacious - and, spoiler, altogether successful - statement of that fact.

Terrence Rattigan isn't a playwright I know a huge amount, or indeed anything, about and to be honest I’d never heard of either of the plays that KBTC are staging to comprise the second part of their aforementioned double bill: All On Her Own and Harlequinade. Which I suppose actually makes it a triple bill, or at least a double-and-a-bit bill. But I digress.

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The Rattigan double header opens with All On Her Own which is a slightly odd addition to the bill. It’s an interesting yet bleak twenty minute monologue, where a widow getting slowly pissed as she struggles to cope with her husband’s death questions whether she drove him to suicide, which Zoe Wanamaker acts beautifully. All well and good, but I'm not clear by what logic it sits as a warm up act to the raucous theatrical farce that follows. Presumably the logic of ‘look, we've got Zoe Wanamaker so let’s give her something meaty to do’ which, to be fair, is difficult logic to argue with. There’s nothing wrong with it at all, as with everything KBTC so far it’s immaculately done, it’s just a bit unnecessary. And as you can probably tell by the fact I've reviewed it in a paragraph didn't make a lasting impression on me!

If my praise for All On Her Own is qualified though, my love for Harlequinade is not.

A short (#WarOnIntervals) and silly farce, Harlequinade tells the story of a hapless theatre company touring a production of Romeo and Juliet to the provinces ‘for the public good’ when it transpires that their legendary (and legendarily idiotic) actor/manager leading man is an accidental and longstanding bigamist.

To put it bluntly, this play is fucking funny. It doesn't have a secret agenda and there isn't any hidden depth to it, and that’s completely fine. It just makes you laugh; loudly and consistently. Rattigan’s writing obviously deserves a big ol’ chunk of the credit for this, as does Christopher Oram’s convincingly amateurish design and Rob Ashford’s pleasingly daft choreography (there’s a gloriously poorly done fight sequence, which made me laugh an undignified amount, that deserves particular credit).

But the majority of the humour is derived from the acting. As with The Winter’s Tale there are almost too many notable performances to mention but Hadley Fraser’s excitable halberdier (with an excellent Brummie accent) and Tom Bateman’s constantly-close-to-a-breakdown stage manager are personal favourites. Zoe Wanamaker is an unapologetic scene stealer (in what is essentially a cameo) as the unhinged and ferocious Dame Maude, and her rants at the expense of the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells are catnip to any theatre geek.

This is Ken Branagh’s show though. His Arthur Gosport is a glorious creation; preening, ridiculous, ego-maniacal yet at all times staying on the right side of the credibility line. It’s not a revelation (to me anyway) that Branagh can do comedy very well but the fact that he can do slapstick comedy very well is something new and fabulous. And there is some big slapstick in this too - both his elaborate fainting and his ‘natural’ Romeo death which involves about the same amount of flailing about as what I do to get out of a beanbag chair are belly laugh funny. In many ways the smaller slapstick (is slapstick quantifiable by size? I'm going with it) is even funnier though. Both his much mocked “little jump” onto a bench during the balcony scene and repeated sequences in which he wanders earnestly around the stage moving an obviously fake fancy plant pot about are genuinely hilarious. And the extent to which he’s prepared, implicitly or otherwise, to send himself up is so refreshing. I love him. As you might have noticed.

Here’s a controversial opinion to end with: I liked Harlequinade better than The Winter’s Tale. I'm not saying that it’s a better production or a better play (though I think you can make a strong argument for the latter) but I found it more enjoyable. And what’s more there are actually a smattering of tickets left so if I were to say ‘you should go and see this play as a matter of urgency’ you actually can. Hurrah! Now, go and see this play as a matter of urgency.

Oh and in case you thought I was joking about the snowglobe...

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Harlequinade and All On Her Own are playing (in rep) as part of the Plays at the Garrick season until January 13th.

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