After the serious-minded (and beautifully staged) The Winter’s Tale, you can’t blame the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company for wanting to let its hair down a bit. But I’m not sure that a 1948 backstage comedy by Terence Rattigan called Harlequinade has quite enough going on in it to make it worth the considerable efforts being made on its behalf.
You can see the obvious attraction, though: the play-within-the-play being rehearsed here is Romeo and Juliet, a play that Branagh once starred in and directed himself at the Lyric Hammersmith nearly 30 years ago, and here he’s an actor-manager doing exactly the same thing. And, by blissful coincidence, the touring company portrayed here are also staging a production of The Winter’s Tale, that of course Harlequinade is now playing in rep with.
Those meta-theatre layers are duly amplified here, but the show is little more than a light, slight, but undeniably amiable theatrical trifle. It got there ages before Noises Off did, of course, as it portrays the backstage dramas of trying to put a play on against the odds, but it also reminded me even more of Kiss Me, Kate, Cole Porter’s best musical that offered a fizzing backstage portrait of a production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. And Harlequinade and Kiss Me, Kate actually both opened just three months apart in 1948.
But you would have to search hard otherwise for any deeper resonances in this charming piece whose key dramatic device revolves improbably around a possible case of bigamy. But if the play feels a bit effortful at times, it does offer Branagh the opportunity to reveal his comic chops in a sharply drawn portrait of an egomaniac actor for whom only the play’s the thing and upon whom the outside world rarely intrudes.
There are also some delightful comic cameos around him, including Miranda Raison as his equally single-minded actress wife, Tom Bateman as the harried stage manager Jack, Hadley Fraser as a bit-part player trying to make the most of his single line, and Zoe Wanamaker as a veteran actress playing the Nurse who has her own notes for Juliet. I smiled more often than I chuckled.
The evening is fleshed out — some might say padded — by a curtain raiser of more substance, as Wanamaker offers the West End’s first outing for Rattigan’s 1968 monologue All on Her Own. Playing a lonely widow having a strained, pained conversation with herself about her builder husband’s sudden death — was it suicide or an accident? — Wanamaker brings both poise and heartache to this short, intense play.