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Quartet

by on 10 April 2018

Catch a Falling Star

Quartet

by Ronald Harwood

Cheltenham Everyman at Richmond Theatre until 14th April, then touring until 21st April

Review by Eleanor Marsh

“Art is nothing if it does not make you feel” is the phrase that I took away with me from Quartet at Richmond Theatre.

This is a no expenses spared production from the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham. It has an all-star cast, truly sumptuous and well thought out set and costumes that would be proud to grace the stage of the Royal Opera House.

The film version of the play, starring Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins was magical and the characters so well defined (and now so well associated with those actors) must hover over anyone taking over the roles like Banquo’s ghost. When he was asked why he took on Quartet as his first directing project at the age of 75, Dustin Hoffman said, “Do what you know” and proceeded to deliver an excellent portrayal of ageing in a humorous, sympathetic and totally believable manner. One of the film’s strengths is that as well as the four leading “stars” it is peppered with background artistes who are genuine previous stars of opera, theatre and music.

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The plot of the play is simple and well executed by Ronald Harwood, who has inhabited this world and, like Hoffman writes about what he knows. Wilf, Cissy and Reggie are all past stars of opera are seeing out their days in a retirement home for musicians. The annual concert to celebrate Verdi’s birthday is looming and they are searching for something to perform. Enter Jean, the biggest star of them all in her day – and still the grandest. Her arrival means that they can recreate their finest hour, the quartet from Rigoletto. Jean, however is not playing ball. No spoilers here but the journey to the play’s lavish finale is funny and touching, giving each actor several moments to shine. In any ensemble piece such as this the true delights are in the banter and relationships between the characters.

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The Everyman’s cast are all well-known television faces who have a strong pedigree in theatre and, crucially, have musical experience, which makes all the difference at the end of the play. They also manage to shed the ghosts of those film performances pretty well. Paul Nicholas excels as Wilf. He has some of the best lines in the show and is pitch perfect on delivery, with not one opportunity for a laugh missed. Not blessed with as many sharp one-liners, Jeff Rawle’s Reggie really makes the most of his comedic marmalade jar and baiting the hapless Nurse Angelique. Both actors give touching insights into the experiences that make Wilf and Reggie the characters they have become, as does Sue Holderness as Jean. Terribly well preserved and all designer shoes and handbag on her first entrance, once she drops the façade and we learn more of her recent history she becomes much more likeable. Wendi Peters, as Cissy, is hampered by being at least 20 years younger than the role she is playing. She is an engaging performer and versatile actor, but she has been directed to play most of the play as a caricature of a batty old lady, complete with “comedy walk” as opposed to a charming and talented woman suffering from the early stages of dementia. At the end of the play when Cissy is at her most vulnerable I was genuinely moved and wishing I could have seen more of this more naturalistic performance throughout the play. It was a lovely moment.

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The first night of a new venue during a tour is always odd. The cast are familiar with the piece but not necessarily with the space. This production is no different. The pace was, at times a little slow but with actors this experienced it wasn’t allowed to be so for long. The pre-recorded old folks’ operatic chorus heard at the beginning of the concert was such a lovely touch that it was a shame that we heard none of the other acts in the background during the penultimate dressing room scene. The finale is a joy – all four actors in full performance mode, with Ms Holderness standing out as the diva she is.

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Is it art? Did it move me? Yes, I think it is and when it really mattered it did. What Quartet definitely is, though is a genuine entertainment that is thought provoking in the best way – with humour and lightness of touch.

Eleanor Marsh
April 2018

 

Photography courtesy of Cheltenham Everyman Theatre Company

 

From → Drama, Opera, Reviews

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