A retirement home for veteran opera singers is gently plodding along, anticipating a little concert to commemorate the birthday of Giuseppe Verdi. The whimsical and contemplative idyll is disrupted by the arrival of operatic diva Jean. Her arrival would shake things up anyway, but the crowning glory of the situation is that her jilted ex-husband Reggie is resident there too. The two might be able to avoid each other if friends Wilfred and Cecily weren’t talking them around into performing a quartet together for the concert.
This revival of Sir Ronald Harwood’s comedy about aging and art is very welcome. There was a rather more bloated film adaptation some years ago and thankfully this staging does not export the saccharine cinematic additions to the material retroactively. It’s a co-production with the Cheltenham Everyman, due to start touring after this initial run. The appeal is very simple: four well-esteemed actors carry the audience through a play reflecting on life, aging, music, and art. Oh, and sex. Lots and lots of discussion of sex.
Quartet sees intermittent revivals and prestige (if misguided) film adaptations because it remains a very witty and observant play. The characters are allowed contemplate weighty issues with the poignant reflection of time, but that is peppered through a script that focuses on very real and human experiences. I was really sold on the way the characters talked shop about their lives on the stage and behind it. But of course the source of so many of the belly-laughs is the ribald wit – of which Wilfred is the main mouthpiece. As much as it is a construction to tickle the audience when Wilfred is talking dirty to an oblivious Cecily with her headphones on, it is a key thematic element of the play. People will reminisce about and pursue these sensations all through their life, it doesn’t just stop abruptly. The idea of the primacy of experience, whether feeling through art or affection or a quick lusty romp, is central in Quartet.
Being a four-hander, Quartet relies almost entirely on the chops of its actors.The casting is on point. We have a band of familiar faces from stage and television whose recognisable presences translate well into the role of once famous singers. Sue Holderness (of Only Fools & Horses) as Jean and Jeff Rawle (of Doc Martin and much more besides) as Reggie arguably make up the central emotion pairing, being former spouses slowly emerging from embitterment. But Paul Nicholas (Eastenders and Just Good Friends) and Wendi Peters (Coronation Street) should not be relegated to mere comic relief as Wilfred and Cecily. Their arcs are simply more individual and revolve less around a definable partnership.
All told, Quartet is a finely executed and well-judged performance. ★★★★☆ Fenton Coulthurst 14th February 2018
Picture by Daisy Walker – Thousand Word Media