There may be voices which jibe at Kenneth Branagh for being producer, deviser and co-director of a year-long season, finding starry casting like Dame Judi Dench and Michael Pennington and then giving himself the central role of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale.

As it happens, he may be the boss but he is superb in it (see below for five-mouse rave). And he also neatly undermines any murmurs of “who-does-he-think-he-is-bloody-Garrick-or-what?” by running it in rep with Terenace Rattigan’s gleeful parody of the theatre world in Harlequinade, himself playing the dedicated but dreadful Arthur Gosport: producer-actor-manager of a government-subsidized wartime initiative to take Shakespeare to a depressed Midlands town which doesn’t particularly want it. This gives him ample opportunity to portray vanity, directorial incompetence, and aching middle-aged insecurity over having to play Romeo opposite his younger wife (Miranda Raison, here spoofily actressy). Thus the entrepreneurial actormanager Branagh neatly takes the mickey out of those who take it out of him.

Harlequinade itself is a bit creaky, Rattigan enjoying the typical theatre-man’s sentimental self-mockery. It opens with a balcony scene rehearsal in which the female “darling”on the balcony asks the male ‘darling” below whether he’s going to keep in “that little jump” tonight? Huffily, the male darling says “I thought it helped the boyishness of the character”. As the wig does, until he pulls it off in exasperation to reveal the thinning pate. What is even less helpful is that he is back in Brackley, a rep stamping-ground of his youth, where the chirpy intruder Muriel turns out to be the result of a 17-year-old fling and the pram in the wings makes Romeo a grandfather. Aptly – given Branagh’s other opening production – he is auditioning Perditas for The Winter’s Tale when Muriel pounces on him with a cry of “Dad!” and all he can splutter is “Which text are you using?”
So there are some good jokes, and a gorgeously bossy Zoe Wanamaker as Dame Edna, the formidable aunt and grande-dame of the company with her devastating “notes”. But in this 100-minute double-bill evening which runs in rep alongside the big Winter’s Tale, the real find is the twenty-minute opener, ALL ON HER OWN, a dark Rattigan monologue by Zoe Wanamaker as a widow with a whisky decanter, addressing the husband who probably killed himself.

As she breaks into his voice in imagination and memory the widow strips her own pretentions bare. She reveals a life cultured, upmarket, but always a bit ashamed of her rich builder husband, impeccably polite to him but failing in love . She strips her pretensions bare, speaking for him at last in the inescapable haunting that is memory. “DId I kill you?”. Rattigan’s own lover was a suicide: grief and understanding blaze through this short, painfully arresting piece. It makes a curious bedfellow to Harlequinade, but worth seeing.

box office 0844 482 9673 to 21 Jan http://www.branaghtheatre.com

rating four, but only  because of the Wanamaker parts!
4 Meece Rating


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