“Which text are you using?”
Part of Kenneth Branagh’s opening salvo as his year-long residency at the Garrick begins is the Terence Rattigan double header of Harlequinade and All On Her Own. When originally performed, Harlequinade was paired up with another of Rattigan’s short plays The Browning Version to beef up the bill and the same thinking has been applied here. Taking advantage of Zoë Wanamaker’s presence in the company, Branagh has introduced one-woman 30-minute play All On Her Own (also known as Duologue) to the programme, playing directly before Harlequinade with nary an interval between them.
One can see the theoretical case for the decision, ensuring West End prices can still be charged but providing a much more slimline companion piece to the three hours of The Winter’s Tale but in reality, it’s an odd pairing that demonstrates little complementarity (apart from for Rattigan completists). All On Her Own is a grand showcase for Wanamaker, as her widow returns from a party somewhat tipsy and begins to reminisce about her dead husband, even talking to him. It’s a little bit funny, it’s a little bit sad, but it’s a little bit perplexing too, especially as it has no connection to the ensuing Harlequinade.
Which is a bit of a revelation, especially as it has previously been saddled with something of a dodgy reputation. But as with French Without Tears, Rattigan was no slouch when it came to comedy, his work just needs to be treated in the right way. And Branagh and Rob Ashford nail that here, playing up the all the staginess of a touring company going through the motions of a rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet in a theatre in the Midlands. As a backstage drama, it is the personal lives of the actors that come into play more than Shakespeare’s words, as increasingly farcical shenanigans threaten to derail the whole production.
Chief among them is Branagh’s Arthur Gosport, the company’s Romeo who discovers he’s a grandfather and Miranda Raison’s Edna who discovers she is in fact bigamously married to him, but the real joy of the play is the constant swirl of characters who weave in and out, each with their golden comic moments. Wanamaker’s caustic Dame doling out unsolicited advice, Hadley Fraser’s halberdier struggling to deal with how to enunciate his sole line, John Dalgelish’s hapless policeman, it’s frivolous fun but executed darn well near perfectly to provide by far the stronger half of this company’s initial offerings.