Another of the ‘Plays at the Garrick’ series from the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, Harlequinade and All On Her Own are two works that truly showcase the versatility of Terence Rattigan’s writing at two opposing moments in his career. One is a monologue that examines the need to be loved and the pain of that loss, the other a light-hearted dig at the craziness of theatre life; one written at the height of Rattigan’s career, the other with his reputation at its lowest and only a few years before his death. When combined, both are a pleasant contrast that ultimately showcases a successful collaboration with Zoë Wanamaker.
All On Her Own focuses on Rosemary (Wanamaker), who recently widowed is determined to live her life without husband Gregory. Rosemary has a confident exterior, a well put-together visage that complements her pleasant personality in social situations. But when she closes the door and is finally alone, that exterior cracks and she is left unsure of whether her husband’s death was accident or suicide. Turning to the very whiskey decanter that is the cause of this uncertainty, Rosemary is haunted by memories of her husband manifesting themselves in her drunken stupor.
Wanamaker depicts the slow unravelling of her innermost thoughts with a captivating vulnerability – a deep insecurity that reveals itself, as the alcohol takes the sheen off her seemingly perfect veneer. Her pauses are more powerful than the dialogue itself; they leave the audience alone with things unsaid as Wanamaker retreats into her own inner hell, a whirlpool of confliction and doubt. Artistic Associates Rob Ashford and Christopher Oram add an insightful introduction to the character, who behind a sheer veil opens the play with an attempt to sell the family home.
Harlequinade by contrast is much more farcical, examining a repertory theatre company that has found success in depicting Shakespeare plays to the uneducated masses for over 50 years. In it, husband and wife Arthur Gosport (Branagh) and Edna Selby (Miranda Raison) are the stars in Romeo and Juliet, parts they have played for over 15 years. Director Jack Wakefield (Tom Bateman) is on hand, pandering to their every whim to the detriment of his own personal life with Joyce Langland (Kathryn Wilder); also still around like a bad smell is Dame Maud (Wanamaker) who played the part before Edna and is more than happy to impart her years of experience to the disgruntled leading lady.
The dynamic between Gosport and Selby here is not unlike that of parent and child. Edna (Raison) is constantly encouraging Gosport (Branagh) as he comes up with fruitless attempts to revitalise the show and is completely oblivious to the goings-on of anyone else outside his bubble of stardom. There is also a bone of contention between Maud (Wanamaker) and Edna; despite having played Juliet for many years, Edna can’t shake off Maud’s criticism. More could be emphasised between these two, almost akin to a mother chiding her daughter, determined to do things her own way.
The ensemble provides the majority of the comic relief here – George Chudleigh’s (John Shrapnel) over-the-top retirement speech that allows First Halberdier (Hadley Fraser) to finally get a speaking part is particularly entertaining, and crops up throughout the play to a warm reception. Overall, director Jack (Bateman) is the star of this intentionally haphazard show, trying to balance the personalities of the spoilt starlets as well as answering inane questions from the remainder of the production team and keeping the situation under control when unwanted visitors arrive. Bateman frenetically marches around the stage with desperation, loving to hate his job but simultaneously not prepared to quit and desert this dysfunctional family. Every new slip-up and problem should be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but is an added pressure that Bateman piles on himself and manages to just about cope with.
The writing is an interesting insight into the frantic and fraught efforts that go on behind the scenes of a production and as such makes for a suitable farce. However, given the obvious similarities in storyline and genre to The Play That Goes Wrong (currently on at the Duchess Theatre), Harlequinade falls slightly short of successful.
Harlequinade/All On Her Own is playing at the Garrick Theatre until 13 January 2016. For more information and tickets, see the Nimax Theatres website. Photo: Johan Persson.