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Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh with co-director Rob Ashford and the company at the press day's final curtain call

Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh with co-director Rob Ashford and the company at the press day’s final curtain call

There’s nothing like a major theatre event to warm the cockles on a winter’s day. And the opening of Kenneth Branagh’s return to the West End with a year-long season as actor-manager was undoubtedly an event with a capital E.

And also a bit of a marathon, albeit one with a long pit-stop. The 2pm matinee of The Winter’s Tale, with Branagh as the green-eyed king Leontes and Judi Dench as his wiser, cooler counsel Paulina, was a marathon itself at just over three hours.

Press were then invited round the corner for drinks (coffee for me) and canapés for another three hours (I ducked out half-way through, as did many, to try to cram some work in) before heading back to the newly refurbished Garrick Theatre for the 8pm evening Terence Rattigan double bill of his backstage farce Harlequinade (Michael Frayn’s Noises Off and The Play That Goes Wrong are inheritors to this lovable brand of luvvie self-mockery), preceded by a 20-minute monologue of grief, with Zoe Wanamaker intoxicating, and intoxicated, as the widow of a (possible) suicide.

Three-quarters of the company – including Branagh and Miranda Raison, Jessie Buckley (once again, though in markedly different guises, playing his wife and long-lost daughter, respectively), Hadley Fraser, Tom Bateman, John Dagleish and John Shrapnel – also returned, newly reinforced by Wanamaker. The evening was a brief affair by comparison with the afternoon – two plays that, together, ran for less than half the time of The Winter’s Tale.

And at the end, Dench, Michael Pennington, Adam Garcia and other Shakespeare-only actors rejoined their colleagues for a joint curtain call and received a standing ovation for their troubles. But, after the elation of the event, what was the verdict on the productions on offer themselves? And, after the acres of coverage generated when Branagh first announced his Plays at the Garrick back in April, what else does the press have to say about his new venture?


Michael Billington: The image of the West End suddenly brightens with the arrival of a six-play Kenneth Branagh season lasting a year. But, although Branagh stars in four of the productions and is involved in…
Ann Treneman: The Winter’s Tale opens as if it was Dickens. There is a Christmas tree, everyone is wearing heavy Victoriana. It feels borderline Nutcracker, with bows, gussets, endless velvet. There is…
THE STAGE – ★★★★
Mark Shenton: Kenneth Branagh is back – and the West End is once again being transformed under his watch, with a season of classical, 20th-century and new plays presented under commercial auspices.
TIME OUT – ★★★
Andrzej Lukowski: If there’s one person who isn’t going to mess up a Shakespeare play, it’s Kenneth Branagh, the high priest of the Bard. Right? Errrrr, right-ish. The opening show in Sir Ken’s year-long…
Libby Purves: Branagh’s Garrick year as actor-manager opens in unquestionable triumph. One of Shakespeare’s greatest, most redemptive plays is richly served without flaw or gimmick, traditional in this 1889 theatre but fresh, clear, heartfelt.
Michael Billington: Ironically, co-directors Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh have chosen to revive Terence Rattigan’s 1948 farce, Harlequinade, which affectionately portrays exactly the kind of old-fashioned…
Ann Treneman: It’s an odd proposition, this double bill, one cameo and one play, without an interval. The link is the author, Terence Rattigan, and the actress, Zoë Wanamaker.
Mark Shenton: After the serious-minded (and beautifully staged) The Winter’s Tale, you can’t blame the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company for wanting to let its hair down a bit. But I’m not sure that a…
Andrzej Lukowski: An old-fashioned rep company flogging creaky versions of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Romeo and Juliet, led by an old luvvie whose career has, frankly, seen better days……
Libby Purves: The entrepreneurial actor-manager Branagh neatly takes the mickey out of those who take it out of him… But in this 100-minute double-bill evening, the real find is the twenty-minute opener, a dark Rattigan monologue…
Judi Dench inspires in Kenneth Branagh’s mixed marathon 
Paul Taylor: A red-letter day for theatre lovers. Kenneth Branagh’s name crops up whenever the post of artistic director of the National becomes vacant. Last year, he was deemed to be the traditionalist candidate, in contention in contention with the boundary-pushing experimentalist, Rufus Norris. The public now seems to have the best of both worlds with the Norris NT really starting to find a strong voice, just as Branagh goes back to the future with his own company.
Matt Trueman: Kenneth Branagh has a habit of occupying West End theaters. In 1988, his actor-led company Renaissance Theatre took over the Phoenix for a season, challenging the commercial sector with its…
Natasha Tripney: The set is decked out in Christmas colours. Wine red and fir green. There’s a prettily decorated tree and a dusting of something snow-like falls from above. You can almost smell the sherry…
Gary Naylor: What fun everyone has with Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade (at the Garrick Theatre until 13 January), a pantomime-like farce, without all the baggage panto brings with it. Sir Kenneth…
Dame Judi Dench: ‘I can see red lights all over the theatre’
Hannah Furness: Dame Judi, who is currently starring in The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick Theatre, directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh , said she had noticed significant change in the West End during her years…
Dame Judi Dench, 80, supports Harlequinade
JJ Nattrass: The actress, 80, watched them perform in Harlequinade by Terence Rattigan at London’s Garrick theatre as part of Branagh’s Theatre Company and joined them onstage after the show….
Kenneth Branagh: ‘I have unfinished business with Romeo and Juliet’
Mark Shenton: Kenneth Branagh turns 55 next month, but he still exudes the same youthful exuberance and ready enthusiasm for the theatre that he had when he began his career, fresh out of RADA, by…
Dame Judi Dench on retirement, Star Wars rumours and Jeremy Corbyn
Andrzej Lukowski: ‘I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave the room.’ The ‘room’ is the empty bar at the Garrick Theatre, where I’m sat with Dame Judi Dench: not only one of our greatest…
Zoë Wanamaker: Kenneth Branagh? He’s just like Corbyn
Nick Curtis: “He took a lot of flak years ago, just like Jeremy Corbyn, people throwing stuff at him because he is an individual,” says Zoë Wanamaker. “I think it’s to do with envy in this…
Kenneth Branagh Returns to the Stage, With More Roles
Roslyn Sulcas: A crescendo of caterwauling sounded through the thin walls of the room that Kenneth Branagh was using as a makeshift office. Seated in one of many small chairs with little built-in…
Spooks’ Miranda Raison is set to star in The Winter’s ChTale
Charlotte Cripps: Miranda Raison was a little uncertain when she was called to audition for Kenneth Branagh’s new season in the West End. “I had done a horrid audition for his 2013 production of Macbeth to…
Kenneth Branagh: Putting guilt on the stage
Sarah Crompton: The first night of the play that changed the face of British theatre was watched by an audience dressed in black tie. That was what you wore for a theatrical premiere at the Royal Court in…
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