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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
HARLEQUINADE
at Garrick Theatre

NOTHING AT STAKE
By FIONA MOUNTFORD

  Tom Bateman and Kathryn Wilder/ Ph: Johan Persson

As I sat through the short, unpleasant hour that is Harlequinade, there was one thought I simply couldn’t shake: How on earth is this play gracing a West End stage in 2015? Of the countless dramas that he could have picked, what possessed Sir Kenneth Branagh to exhume this rackety old Terence Rattigan one-act piece from 1948? If he wanted to present a comedy set backstage at the theatre – and there’s nothing at all wrong with that – why not plump for Michael Frayn’s sublime modern classic Noises Off?
 
Harlequinade, playing in repertory with a Branagh and Judi Dench-starring The Winter’s Tale, marks the opening salvo of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s year-long residency in the West End, and there’s an inescapable sense of disappointed expectations all round. Branagh’s unwise insistence on also directing – in collaboration here with Rob Ashford – everything he stars in gives rise to airless, ponderous productions with a worryingly old-fashioned feel. The youthful spark and joyous self-confidence that signalled Branagh as a trailblazing theatrical wunderkind 30 years ago have long fizzled out.
 
So, here we are in Harlequinade in some nondescript post-war Midlands town, where actor-manager Arthur Gosport (Branagh, of course) and his actress wife Edna (Miranda Raison) are leading a tatty touring company in a sub-par series of Shakespeare plays. Arthur is giving his somewhat elderly Romeo in florid ham style, coincidentally the exact same style in which Branagh plays Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. One suspects that the irony is lost on him.
 
It’s little more than a series of sketches and sketchily drawn characters, as life and art get themselves in a tangle over the course of one particularly eventful dress rehearsal. Harlequinade, almost never performed anymore and for good reason at that, is often described as a "love letter to the theatre," but this lumpen production makes it look more like a suicide note. Nothing matters, nothing’s at stake, and everything – long-lost children, bigamous marriages, broken engagements – can be dismissed in a glib line or two. No wonder Tom Bateman’s frazzled stage manager, in one of the few performances with any life or urgency in it, looks so despairing.
 
Harlequinade was originally paired in a double-bill with The Browning Version, Rattigan’s beautifully poignant look at a failed classics master in a minor public school. Branagh, I suspect, would have made a fine Andrew Crocker-Harris, if he could have borne playing a character older than his actual years, so it seems perverse that Harlequinade is instead teamed here with All on Her Own, a peculiar monologue that Rattigan wrote in 1968 for the BBC. Zoe Wanamaker is Rosemary Hodge, a widow addressing her late husband and reflecting on her possible culpability in his death. It’s under-convincing and over-extended.
 
Arthur Gosport’s touring company also has in its repertory a (fictitious) new play, the improbable-sounding Follow the Leviathan to My Father’s Grave. However bad it was, I’d have preferred it to what’s actually on offer here.

 

 


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