'All On Her Own' – 'Harlequinade' at the Garrick Theatre Review
London Theatre 1, 10 November 2015
There’s a nice balance in this Terence Rattigan double bill, as close to ‘perfect’ as it is humanly possible to get. Not only is it markedly different from 'The Winter’s Tale' (in which it is running in rep at the Garrick Theatre) but each of these two plays are very distinct from one another.
'All On Her Own' sees Rosemary Hodge (Zoë Wanamaker) in monologue, and a deep and meaningful one at that. Such a lot is packed into a short play, and it’s a very touching (if whisky laden) half-hour. While the text can seem rather spartan on paper, it is brought to life by Wanamaker in a tantalisingly engaging performance. We must all face the death of someone close to us at some stage, and it is a subject sensitively handled here. The good times, the challenging times, the differences of opinion, and so on, are swiftly relived. The only problem with this play is that once it really gets going, it’s time to… get going. The curtain falls, the applause rises, and then here comes the British farce that is 'Harlequinade'.
It isn’t not so much going from the sublime to the ridiculous, but from the ridiculously sublime to the sublimely ridiculous. I could not make out a single weak link in this cast. ‘Sublimely ridiculous’ isn’t (just) me trying to be wordy – there is a majestic silliness in all the commotion that goes on backstage before a show. This is The Play That Goes Wrong decades before The Play That Goes Wrong came along. The tones are, largely, almost as clipped as those you would find in a Noel Coward play.
Arthur Gosport (Sir Kenneth Branagh) is so revered as an actor and director that he is almost universally referred to as ‘Mr Gosport’, his wife Edna (Miranda Raison) understandably being on more personal terms. There’s something deeply ironic in Branagh prancing about ‘casting’ young women for a production of 'The Winter’s Tale' (as per Rattigan’s script), and what is also interesting is his recitation of Shakespeare blank verse. It’s wooden, not because of Branagh, but because of Gosport, who has been playing a particular iconic role for so many years now that he a) cannot and/or does not have it in him to deliver a ‘fresh’ performance, and b) himself admits he may be too old now for the part in question. Still, most of the other characters are simply delighted to be part of a Gosport-directed production, so it’s ‘Yes, Mr Gosport’ this and ‘Yes, Mr Gosport’ that – however ludicrous his commands become. And they do get quite absurd.
This adds to the comedy, and thus to the audience’s enjoyment of this chaotic play. Look out for a particular sword fight in the play-within-a-play between Romeo (Gosport) and Mercutio (Fred Ingram, played by Stuart Neal), and, at the very end, the cumbersomely titled First Halberdier (Hadley Fraser), knocking a song into the park. But then those of us who love a good musical as much as a decent play already knew Hadley Fraser could sing out so incredibly well. John Dagleish’s Policeman, though a minor part, highlighted Dagleish’s delightful stage presence magnificently, and Jessie Buckley’s Muriel Parker was also lively and likeable.
Dame Maud (Zoë Wanamaker) suggests to Edna that she give a few ‘tips’ on performance; while diva-like, they are also hilarious, if exaggerated. For instance, an insult hurled at her by Burton (Jimmy Yuill) is turned against him with great skill and effect. Best of all, for me, though, is company manager Jack Wakefield (Tom Bateman), ever frazzled with multiple jobs on the go. A life in the theatre is a life like no other, and one he can’t get away from. But the decision to stay in showbiz is immediately very costly, and he knows he’s selected chaos over order. Jack’s ability to cope with problem after problem is nothing short of admirable.
Actors sending up acting, in a way that only actors could. It’s a hoot. It’s a bit of a cliché, but they really don’t write comedy plays like this anymore. Do get a ticket, if you still can. 5 Stars