With the Mary’s dining room invoking school hall vibes, and a stage decorated with paper garlands and a gaudily painted cardboard balcony, Foot of the Hill Theatre Company’s Harlequinade looks like the most amateur of am dram from the start. That isn’t a criticism, mind. In fact, it’s perfect for this production, setting the tone from the very start for a farce about a group of hopeless actors and one extraordinarily stressed man trying to manage them all.
We open after lights judder out, there’s an awkward pause, then Keir Mulcahey takes the stage as Arthur Gosport, in turn playing Romeo. Mulcahey milks every line for what it’s worth, building a flamboyant character who overacts more than Brian Blessed. Then there’s Edna as Juliet (Niamh Hanns), less loudly over the top and more a demanding artist. Together, the two create characters which are the worst stereotype of actors, getting the audience laughing and keeping it up throughout the show.
If you’re looking for subtle, nuanced performances, this is not the show. Every character is a farcical creation from batty old ladies like Maud, played in a suitably dotty manner by Ellie Fidler, to Johnny (Odunayo Oladuji), whose primary role in the troupe seems to be shouting from the curtains like he’s swallowed a foghorn. It creates the impression of a thrown-together college Christmas pantomime, which is only furthered by some wry Durham jokes peppered throughout the script. Commendations to director Alice Bridge and assistant director Rex Munson, who obviously made a concerted effort to not let a single opportunity for a gag be missed.
The closest to a sane man that the show has is Jack Wakefield, played by Luke Skinner, a stressed out stage manager/producer who anyone who has ever been involved in DST will be able to recognise. Skinner makes Jack excellently high-strung, with his character never slipping for a second, becoming twitchier and more nervous as the play goes on, always with an expression between concern and exhaustion.
It’s in the spirit of a show like Harlequinade to feel scrappy and rough around the edges – if it was slick with an expensive set and costumes it would almost feel like a betrayal of the show’s essence. Instead, it creates a twee bubble of the past, right down to the majority of characters speaking in the heightened RP which feels unique to old media. The strength of the script is that it allows refuge in its concept: if any mistakes were made, technical or otherwise, it was all mitigated by how it contributed to the show as a whole.
Terrence Rattigan’s script is hardly unique, and it doesn’t bring a whole new dimension to the comic play within a play idea (Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval comes to mind). There’s something delightfully nostalgic about this production though, and when everyone onstage seems to be enjoying overacting their socks off, it’s hard to not laugh along.
This performance also had a collection to raise money for Pink Week. If you don’t have a chance to see the show, please still consider donating to Breast Cancer Now here.
Harlequinade is on at 8.30pm, 17th March in Mary’s Dining Hall.