Writer: Ronald Harwood
Director: Peter Rowe
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Growing older is compulsory – or at least, better than the alternative, most would agree. What Writer, Ronald Harwood, seems to be suggesting is that what matters isn’t the physical fact of ageing, but how we cope mentally with the changes it inevitably brings. He tells his story through the eyes of former stars of the opera: the highly organised Reg who likes nothing better than a good list, the confused Cecily, whose grip on reality is tenuous at best and the rakish Wilfred, who loves nothing better than to tease Cecily with affectionate sexual innuendo. These three are residents in a retirement home for former music performers. They recall their past glories, especially the re-released cd featuring their Bella figlia dell’amore, the third act quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto. This was performed with Jean, formerly married to Reg, but who moved on to several more marriages that, she hoped, would bring financial security after she retired from public singing many years before. The cat is firmly set among the pigeons when it is revealed that Jean, too, moves in. While Wilf and Cissy look forward to the quartet reunited, Reg is affected badly, apparently bitter about the past. And Jean is not very happy that she, the self-proclaimed brightest star in the firmament, should be reduced to living like. What is she hiding behind her façade of unconscious verbal cruelty and pomposity towards Jeff and the other residents?
A question they need to address is the passage of time. With what does one fill the days, each much the same as the rest? How does one deal with living in a world that simply doesn’t need one’s fading talents anymore? One thing the residents do is produce a concert each year on 10 October to celebrate the birth of Guiseppe Verdi. What better way to celebrate than by recreating their Rigoletto? Jean is firmly against and as the quartet argue, we learn more about their pasts as well as their presents. Why is the gentle Reg so bitter and prone to outbursts of inchoate rage accusing the staff of withholding, of all things, marmalade from his breakfast? Why exactly did their marriage fail? And will they join together for one more performance?
Harwood’s writing is engaging if a touch superficial. Combined with a directorial light touch from Peter Rowe, one could enjoy Quartet as purely a gentle comedy, rather in the Last of the Summer Wine mould. But there are undercurrents that push past the humour to try to ask questions about the process of ageing. While these elements are undoubtedly present, they are overshadowed by the more comfortable and easy laughs in the script. The detailed set of Phil R Daniels and Charles Cusick-Smith sets the scene effectively in the fine country house our fading stars find themselves inhabiting, but it does also add to the old-fashioned and cosy feel of the whole.
Wendi Peters brings us the permanently confused Cecily. She provides much of the comic relief as Wilf gently pokes fun at her, but she remains a rather two-dimensional caricature. While we do learn of her past, we are largely protected from the poignant reality of what her present really is, a missed opportunity. Wilf, brought to us by Paul Nicholas, on the other hand, is more of an enigma. Rakish he certainly is now, but the uncovering of his backstory reveals a rather different man to the one he likes to present. The dramatic tension between Reg (Jeff Rawle) and Jean (Sue Holderness) mines a rather richer vein as they spar while simultaneously walking on eggshells around each other. The background to Jeff’s preoccupations and angry outbursts is laid clear and Jean’s fragility is explored. The changes in attitudes wrought between them as time progresses are clearly brought out by Rawle and Holderness as they present us with fully rounded characters.
If you are looking for an undemanding and pleasant evening in the company of a fine cast, then look no further than this touring production of Quartet; if, however, you prefer something a little meatier on which to bite, this might not fit the bill.
Runs until 10 March 2018 and on tour | Image: Antony Thompson