Imogen Usherwood enjoys a casual evening at Foot of the Hill Theatre Company’s farcical ‘Harlequinade’.

“They’re the theatre at its worst… and its best.” So muses one of the characters in Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade, named for the British theatrical tradition of clowning about onstage in a pantomime context. Alice Bridge’s production seeks to bring out this heavily performative, farcical nature at every opportunity, making for a hilarious evening that pokes fun at everything good about ‘bad’ theatre.

The premise is a classic play-within-a-play: a touring company are putting on Romeo and Juliet in a local theatre, and the action we witness is the afternoon before opening night, when the cast and crew are rehearsing before the audience arrive. St Mary’s College dining hall was the ideal venue choice, adding to the idea of this Shakespeare production as a chaotic one, complete with collapsing scenery and fused lighting. The play’s capacity as a farce was heightened by the decision to swap out names of pubs, newspapers and theatre companies for local alternatives: the actors popped out to the Swan for a drink, an interview for Palatinatewas carried out and the production itself was put on by Foot of the Hill. This pseudo-reality reminded us as audience members that we were occupying seats in an empty theatre, making the moment the actors realised they did, after all, have an audience a more humorous payoff.

The performance itself offered a generally fast-paced, utterly ridiculous environment in which every character was a heightened caricature of some theatre stereotype: the middle-aged luvvies; the exhausted, acutely stressed producer; the keen young actor, desperate to make their debut; the theatrical veterans, keen to recount the old days; the tense, mousy secretary. The cast exploited this to its full potential, and clearly had fun pushing their characterisation to their own physical limits – Eleanor Storey as the elderly George Chadleigh never lost her character’s bizarre physicality, and Ellie Fidler made a believable Dame Maud, maintaining the voice and posture of an old veteran of the stage throughout. Elisa Benham was hilarious as a keen upstart young actor, thrilled with her one line in Romeo and Juliet, which she rehearsed again and again with great comic timing. The whole cast was commendable, but the stand-out actors were Niamh Hanns and Keir Mulcahey as Edna Selby and Arthur Gosport, a middle-aged husband and wife team of actors determined to keep playing Shakespeare’s most famous young lovers, even after fifteen years of doing so. Mulcahey opened the show with a hilariously exaggerated rendition of Romeo’s balcony speech, quickly joined by Hanns as a wistful Juliet who required continued prompting from her husband to remember her cues. Their performances were notable highlights of the show, especially Mulcahey’s ‘acting lesson’ which he offered to another character, and Hanns languishing as dead Juliet, then turning to wave at her husband.

Originally written as a one-act play, the decision to cut the show in half with a twenty-minute interval felt a little unnecessary, and made the second act drag towards the end, but the actors finished off with energy and enthusiasm. Some of this is down to the nature of the script which, while certainly hilarious, feels dated or stayed on occasion, relying on a certain brand of comedy and losing its laugh-a-minute appeal at one point in order to move the (unconvincing) plot forward. However, Bridge’s production breathed life into the play, and the performance was generally energetic and massively enthusiastic throughout.

Harlequinade is not an evening of high art or profound theatre, but it is thoroughly well-executed and very enjoyable – an ideal break from summative stress, and a lighthearted, introspective look at theatrical culture that is sure to raise a smile.

Harlequinade will be playing in the dining hall in St. Mary’s College at 8:30pm on Sunday 17th March.