Saturday 19th December 2015, matinée
Well, we didn’t plan it this way, but we seem to have got ourselves into an endless loop of backstage comedies, first with Ben Hur at the Tricycle, then with Peter Pan Goes Wrong, and finally with Harlequinade, our first taste of the new year-long residence at the Garrick by Kenneth Branagh and his company, named with an admirable lack of nonsense the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company. The combination of Branagh and the chance of another Terrence Rattigan play was irresistible. It’s certainly brave to choose a comedy about a touring theatre company which is in danger of falling apart at the seams, given the ambition of Branagh’s own plans for this inaugural season, which will culminate in the man himself playing the lead in ‘The Entertainer’. But it is this unpretentious chutzpah which makes Branagh such a pleasure to watch.
Before we get down to another afternoon of theatrical Schadenfreude, we are treated to an added bonus in the form of a short Rattigan one-woman play ‘All on her own’, performed by Zoë Wanamaker. Originally written for TV, the monologue skilfully explores some dark themes – the self-delusion and self-torture of a woman trying to understand the actions of her dead husband, locked in an endless question and answer session with herself, and breaking into impersonations of her husband with a ‘bad Huddersfield accent’. We are not sure how well it translates to the stage, especially a large theatre, where some of the claustrophobia of the intense inner drama is lost, but this is a rare opportunity for the Rattigan aficionado.
No sooner had the curtain fallen (with just a few moments to jostle for some slightly less worse seats in the Upper Circle), than a film came up detailing the activities of ‘CEMA’, the ‘Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts’, the post war predecessor of the Arts Council, and we are immediately in the world of Arthur Gosport and his wife Edna, veterans of the stage, whose acting company is bringing Shakespeare to the masses, and for whom playing the teenage Romeo and Juliet is just a case of mind over matter. Returning to Brackley, Gosport has a vague sense of Deja Vu, before being confronted with a daughter and grandchild he never thought he had, not to mention the slow realisation that through sheer absent-mindedness he is bigamously married to Edna. Meanwhile the stage manager (a suitably exasperated Tom Bateman) is in the middle of his own tug of love and spends the play trying to tell the couple he must leave the company to get a job ‘in the firm’ with his fiance’s father – between their self-absorption and his ambivalence, this one will run and run.
Kenneth Branagh displays his famous ability to attract a high quality cast in all the roles and it shows. Zoë Wanamaker is Dame Maud, self-appointed mentor to Arthur and Edna, full of faint praise delivered with a velvet voice (“you’re too old to play Romeo and Juliet” she proclaims as they try to adjust the lighting to make it more flattering). John Dagleish, fresh from widespread acclaim as Ray Davies in ‘Sunny Afternoon’ making a great straight man as the bemused policeman, and veteran of West End musicals Hadley Fraser making a hilarious appearance as the ‘First Halberdier’, who gets unexpectedly promoted. He does get to show off his singing skills, although not in the way you might expect. The whole company are led by a masterful comic duo. It is a particular pleasure to see Miranda Raison get some material worthy of her talents, following Hello/Goodbye at the Hampstead Theatre. Here she is more than a match for Branagh, and perfectly captures the subtle but powerfully disarming quality of the eternal actress. She knows her place in the company, but she expertly plays on the insecurities of her husband whilst simultaneously playing the supportive wife, all with perfect charm and a lightness of touch that is all the more hilarious. Branagh himself is perfectly cast, bringing the genuine gravitas of the heavyweight actor to the part, before seamlessly moving into the realms of high comedy. He is completely obsessed, but layered with a veneer of affability which is occasionally punctured with explosive irritability when the real world threatens to rear its ugly head. Never mind high drama, not many actors can imbue the everyday triviality and superficiality of theatrical life with such intensity.
What strikes us most about this piece is how little it has dated. The halcyon days of generous government funding for touring companies may have gone along with some of the more ‘dramatic’ acting styles, but the everyday human drama is universal and engaging. Rattigan’s writing is brilliant, and the acting and creative team have more than done him justice, whether it is in the tight and uncluttered direction of Branagh himself and Rob Ashford, Christopher Oram’s lovingly created set and costumes (some great wig work here), or Bret Yount’s hilariously choreographed fight scenes.
And there’s plenty more to look forward to. Next up for us will be ‘The Painkiller’, directed by Sean Foley, and for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, we warmly recommend the revival of Red Velvet starting in January.