Writer: Ronald Harwood
Director: Peter Rowe
Reviewer: Cathy Swaby
There has always been something compelling about a story that challenges our fear of mortality and growing old. Unlike the standard role of grandparent, wise bearded wizard or grumpy old man, it is refreshing when we are shown actors giving more guileless, positive impressions of being one step nearer the grave.
Ronald Harwood’s comical story of a group of four elderly eccentrics living in a glamorous retirement home is timeless in this sense, and is brought to life once more on this UK tour by some of TVs most familiar faces (Paul Nicholas, Wendi Peters, Sue Holderness and Jeff Rawle).
We meet three of our aged characters on a sunny Kent morning. They are about to change the ways they view their ever dwindling lives. Wilfred, played excellently by Nicholas, has a witty, innuendo-filled flirtation with Cecily, played by Peters. Peters is equally as delightful with her hilarious Carry On facial expressions, and endearing forgetfulness. In contrast we have the more anti-social, grouchy looking Reggie, played by Rawle, who doesn’t move much from his corner armchair, the epitome of how one imagines care home life. He seems more deeply engrossed in one of his many art books than interacting with his wrinkly peers.
The first part eases us in, introducing us to this charming gang, with Wilfred and Cecily providing the comical dialogue and Reggie almost at a loss as to why anyone would want to spend their lives behaving so childishly. He is forever muttering about the marmalade that was not given to him at breakfast, forever caught in a regret of the recent and distant past, and looking for meaning in the arts to escape the mundaneness of it all. The characters come more into their own in the second half as a sense of impending showmanship rather than doom lingers.
The arrival of Jean, played by the well-known Sue Holderness of Only Fools and Horses fame, brings a new perspective on this group of ex-opera singers, and selfishly lands upon their lives pondering where all her years of success have gone. Holderness is wonderful in the part, as the snobbish, stylish yet vulnerable Jean, a fleeting ex-wife of the bitter Reggie. Reggie almost bursts a blood vessel at her arrival from ‘the unfairness of it all’, but is soon tested to seek peace and from their reuniting gains an insight into their past and what it was to be alive.
The play is set in a majestic music room, overlooking an elegant garden, and set designers Phil R W and Charles Cusick-Smith, have brilliantly complimented this classic story of letting go in old age with a stunning and grand backdrop. It is comedy meets tragedy of age, as we see all characters battle with elements of growing older- Cecily’s India based memory loss, Wilfred’s “rusty iron cage” as he poetically refers to it, Reggie’s bitterness and resentment having lost the love of his life, and Jean’s inability to let go of her former glory, repeating herself about a time that was.
Quartet has always been a favoured plot for those seeking some contentment and humour in the fact that being elderly doesn’t have to mean life is all about knitting needles and mothballs. Like the splendid The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel it is a comical portrayal of a group of individuals embracing their later years, perhaps not seeking new adventures as in Marigold, but old ones of time gone by. Nodding to the theatre itself, this play cleverly refers to art and the effect is has on our mind-set.
As Nicholas’s character Wilfred sums up at the end, “art is nothing if it does not make you feel” and Quartet does that in bounds, making us feel warmth and sadness all at once, as we witness these four temperaments enter into something life-affirming and daring. Although this Monday night crowd was mainly of the older persuasion this would be an entertaining evening for all adult audiences in need of a little get up and go.
Runs until 30th March 2018 | Image: Antony Thompson