In The Bleak Midwinter Review

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Unemployed actor Joe (Maloney) decides to launch a production of Hamlet in a disused church over christmas. He hopes to lure London critics, but the only players he can assemble are a rag-tag bunch of misfits. The stage is set for a 'let's do a show' ensemble piece of the Garland / Rooney variety...


Content to remain behind the camera in two roles as writer and director, Branagh sensibly downscales Frankenstein's excess with a small, idiosyncratic, black-and-white comedy of desperate thespians, clearly inspired by the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland "Hey, let's put the show on right here!" genre.

Against the advice of his agent (Joan Collins), pretentious and unemployed actor Joe (Maloney) mounts a DIY production of Shakespeare's Hamlet in a disused village church at Christmas, hoping to make it a showcase vehicle for brilliance, and one to which he can lure London critics. The only company he can muster is a third-rate assortment of eccentrics, inebriates and no-hopers who include the scatty ingenue Nina/Ophelia (Sawalha), camp Terry/transvestite Gertrude (Sessions), a peevishly politically correct Tom/Laertes (Nick Farrell) and grizzled, grumbling old trouper Henry/Claudius (Richard Briers). Needless to say, all does not go well, with the increasingly frenzied and broke Joe, who is directing and playing the Prince of Denmark, worn out by the spats, guilty secrets, failures and foibles of his troublesome, talent-challenged ensemble.

Branagh's soursweet screenplay is a rather odd mixture of malice towards and adoration of luvviedom, with sentiment and affection winning out as the cast pull together to reap miracles. The roles are an invitation to go OTT and the familiar cast oblige with ripe turns that get funnier as they go.

Theatre buffs will especially appreciate the backstage jests and despite what one suspects is bound to be limited appeal, this is, in its sly, enthusiastic sending up of actorly angst, Branagh's most pleasing work to date.