While Kenneth Branagh has opened his year-long residency at the Garrick Theatre at the helm of his new eponymous company with a sterling Edwardian-set production of The Winter's Tale, he also clearly loves the old-fashioned theatre of touring rep, and pays tribute to it in a loving production of Rattigan's backstage comedy Harlequinade, set in a post-war Britain where touring theatre was funded by the government with the explicit social purpose of cheering up the nation.
Branagh's production, co-directed with Rob Ashford, of this 1948 play won't exactly cheer up the nation, but it does put a rumpled smile on your face. That's mainly thanks to the sterling comic efforts of Branagh himself as actor-manager trying to rehearse a production of Romeo and Juliet with himself and his stage lady wife in the leads, even though they are palpably too old for the roles of young teenagers in love.
Branagh will, of course, himself direct Romeo and Juliet later in the same season (with John Madden and Lily James reunited from his own film version of Cinderella in the title roles). So he knows this world well, and brings a great deal of affection (and intentional affectation) to it.
His love for it is infectious, and spreads around the company, too, who give it their all and more; I particularly liked Zoe Wanamaker's company busybody of a nurse, and Hadley Fraser as a bit-part player who is finally afforded a solo line. The play is little more than a mere trifle, but it is so charmingly done here that it is impossible to object too much.
The play runs for little more than an hour, so it is fleshed out by a curtain raiser of All On Her Own, a short monologue written by Rattigan for television in 1968 in which Wanamaker brings a brittle sadness to the role of a widow revisiting the circumstances of her husband's recent death. It has a lot more dramatic substance than Harlequinade, but doesn't quite make a play of its own.
"Wanamaker, who, in the monologue All On Her Own, brings a brilliant, layered depth to the role of the newly widowed woman who hits the whisky and pay dirt as she talks to the departed husband who may or may not have killed himself."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Harlequinade: It’s hardly major Rattigan but it shows actors delightedly sending up a happily vanished theatrical world. All On Her Own: Wanamaker, sprawled over a sofa in humiliating self-abasement, performs the piece with a soul-baring virtuosity that transcends the material and confirms that the Branagh season is devoted to actors."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Harlequinade: Slight and appealingly silly piece. All On Her Own: [Zoë Wanamaker's] performance is at once fierce and melancholy — finely judged and genuinely sad."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard