'Harlequinade' / 'All On Her Own', Garrick Theatre, Review: 'Farcical Froth'

The Telegraph, 10 November 2015
By Dominic Cavendish

We should probably agree with William Hazlitt, writing in 1818, that Shakespeare’s genius resided in its “generic quality, its power of communication with other minds… He was nothing in himself; but he was all that others were, or that they could become.” He omits to mention that Shakespeare was, of course, also an actor.

In 'The Winter’s Tale' - brilliantly revived by the Kenneth Branagh Company, which is newly installed in the West End for a year-long season of six star-studded plays (mostly featuring Branagh) - we witness the sublime fruit of that power to inhabit the minds, lives, feelings of others.

In 'Harlequinade', a one-act 1948 rarity by Terence Rattigan, which is running in rep alongside it, we see the ridiculous flipside of the unbridled artistic temperament.

Arthur Gosport, an ageing actor-manager leading his company, and also his actress-wife, on an interminable tour in the immediate post-war period, is a simple comic archetype of thespian self-preoccupation. Here’s a man so wrapped up in the business of show he is incapable of remembering names, faces, places beyond his immediate ken.

“Bit scatter-brained, isn’t he?” the manager of the Midlands theatre the players have pitched up at for the week observes. “I doubt if you can scatter a void,” replies the young, long-suffering stage-manager Jack.

It’s neatly self-mocking of Branagh to take on the moth-eaten mantle of this past-his-prime Romeo, who, as it happens, is trying to shepherd a production of 'The Winter’s Tale' round the provinces. He reminds us that he has a sense of humour, an instinct for comic business - and overall this brisk assault on the vanities and peculiarities of life back-stage lands a lot of laughs across the hour.

An ensemble of 17 gallantly whip up the farcical froth: whether it’s Zoe Wanamaker as an acidic old-hand; Tom Bateman as the frantic yet unfailingly polite SM; or Hadley Fraser as the stage-struck halberdier, who only has one line and mangles it (a joke drawn from Rattigan’s experience in an Oxford Romeo and Juliet directed by John Gielgud, who Gosport glancingly resembles).

Elsewhere, in a series of essays and interviews, Rattigan posited the notorious figure of “Aunt Edna” – the “respectable, middle-class, middle-aged, maiden lady” no playwright could afford to vex. This evening doesn’t quite pass the Edna test, though.

It’s padded out at the start with 'All on Her Own', a mediocre 1968 Rattigan monologue in which a lonely widow (played by Wanamaker) suddenly suspects in her drink-addled grief that she’s channelling the spirit of her gruff, northern, working-class (and, ouch, philistine) builder husband.

With no interval, the double-bill runs an inconsequential 90 minutes. Not enough to justify a long schlep from the Shires.

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