I went to see Kenneth Branagh’s new theatre company perform a double-bill of one-act plays by Terence Rattigan last night. The two plays, Harlequinade from the 1940s when Rattigan was at his critical peak, and All On Her Own, a twenty minute monologue originally produced as a radio play in 1968, were performed back to back with no interval and lasted just 100 minutes – we were home well before 11pm!
My daughter and I spent the whole drizzly day in London, first going to Camden – where we ate street food for lunch followed by a nitro ice-cream from Chin Chin Labs (the smoothest ice-cream I’ve ever tasted, frozen on the spot with liquid nitrogen), then on to Oxford Street (meh!) and Covent Garden and the London Graphics Centre (yay, pen heaven!), before a pre-theatre burger at the original Ed’s Diner at the end of Old Compton St. A quick view of the tree in Trafalgar Square and a brief foray into Waterstones there until the theatre doors opened saved waiting in the drizzle, but didn’t help our by now very tired feet. And so, to the theatre…
All On Her Own – starring Zoe Wanamaker
It’s hard to believe, but Wanamaker is now 66, but still looks twenty years younger! She was the perfect casting to play Margaret Hodge, the middle-aged widow in her empty nest in Hampstead. This short play was very reminiscent in style of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads – some great comic one-lines, but underlined by tragedy and with a sting in the tale.
Margaret arrives home after a party, attacks the whisky decanter with obvious relish, before starting to talk to her dead husband, who had died on the sofa one night after she had gone to bed. She pretends to be her late husband, putting on a deeper Yorkshire-ish voice and a bit of a swagger to reply to her questions the way she thinks he would have. Guilt and grief overwhelm her …
I hadn’t realised that this short play was such a serious piece, but Wanamaker pulled off this ‘duologue’ marvelously, movingly. At the end she was left staring into space when the curtain came down – taking her bows after the second play.
The play itself was preceded by a short film projected onto the safety curtain explaining the role of CEMA after the war. The forerunner of the Arts Council, CEMA was the ‘Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts’, bringing theatre to the masses after the war. Harlequinade follows one theatre company as they’re putting finishing touches on their production of Romeo & Juliet, opening later that night in a midlands theatre. The company actor-manager is Arthur Gosport (Branagh) who will play Romeo opposite his wife, Edna (Miranda Raison) – and the farce starts right from the outset, as the middle-aged Arthur decides, for the first time in seventeen years, to add a little jump up onto the bench to illustrate his youth as he spies Juliet (very Debbie McGee-like) on her balcony.
Branagh shows exquisite comic timing, and some truly excellent wig-work throughout, putting on his well-honed Gilderoy Lockhart luvvie persona. There are splendid supporting turns from John Shrapel, (also exhibiting outstanding wig-work), Hadley Fraser as the second halbardier, and Wanamaker again as tipsy Aunt Maud (Nurse) who keeps offering acting advice to Edna.
The glue that holds this play together though is the stage manager Jack Wakefield, played by Tom Bateman with an increasingly Basil Fawlty-like air of desperation as things go wrong.
This being a farce, there is mistaken identity, people bursting in in all the wrong places, ultimatums, shock revelations, not to mention a hilarious sword-fight with a Tybalt clearly modelled on Blackadder’s Lord Flasheart, not to mention Arthur’s ideas for improving Romeo’s death scene. The set is suitably ramshackle for a provincial touring production and there’s great fun with the lighting too.
We were at the end of Row D and could see all the actors’ facial expressions writ-large. Branagh, Wanamaker, Shrapnel and their ilk make it seem effortless.
I laughed like a drain.
‘What has life got to do with the theatre?’ Rattigan shows us in this affectionate farce that life is theatre!!!