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Quartet

by on 24 April 2018

Sharing Something Good

Quartet

by Ronald Harwood

Cheltenham Everyman at Theatre Royal, Bath until 21st April

Review by Poppy Rose Jervis

Now here’s a magnificent residence, superb gorgeous aged wood panelling and stone walls, proper wood flooring and suspended glass-paned ceiling, leading from the garden door. Complete with grand piano, one could be forgiven for thinking it was the drawing room of a private country mansion had it not been for the subtly placed practical mugs (no rattling cups and saucers for the vulnerable or shaky handed here) and a set of three scattered picture cushions professing to be ‘classy’, but in fact, being much cheaper and more yielding than their tapestry cousins. For the audience sitting auditorium left, a revealing glimpse into the William Morris-esque papered hallway clued signs and notices pinned to a board and for those on the right, a screen with odd cards and pictures spoke of holidaying or absent staff keeping in touch.

So we find ourselves sitting in this grand room at Beecham House (retirement home, named befittingly after Sir Thomas, the English conductor) in silence – with the happily, head-phoned and intermittently humming and dozing Cecily (affectionately shortened to Cissy), played by Wendi Peters; larger than life and somewhat of a caricature being loud (both, one imagines, as a result of her own failing hearing and from constantly living with those hard of hearing). She is shrill in her high volume yet bumbling, and also kind and practical in her own way, touchingly striving to continue as her own memory lapses more often and she is also becoming more shaky. Sitting with knees akimbo (one leg bandaged), no small stomach and hoiked-up skirt, one could picture her layers of undergarments – and with having to sit with her feet on their sides at times for comfort and ease, I could see (even from my seat in the dress circle) the vibrations in her skirt from her tense and painful legs and the realistic quivers affecting her hands.

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We entered and sat to rousing music. The music fades out, the actors are on stage but yet, for the first few minutes, there is silence – we can’t hear anything but we are aware of the characters, there is no sound at all, but we take in the surroundings … it doesn’t feel odd, it does feel intriguing and is an instance of outstanding directing.

Cissy, on ‘her’ sofa, can’t hear anything either because of the head phones but the silence is broken as she is teased affectionately, although in a highly sexualised and unacceptable manner by Wilfred. Pack your ideas of political correctness firmly away into a deep recess, leave them there for the duration of the play and take the remarks of Wilfred (Paul Nicholas) for what they are meant to be; cheeky, bold and humorous light relief on the surface (the audience loved the delivery). Delve a little deeper into the feelings and past of the straight-backed and smartly suited Wilfred, to understand Paul Nicholas’ portrayal of a man desperate to continue his image of a handsome, virile womaniser which may or may not have been, perhaps how he really wished to live his life.

 

Sitting close by, listening and watching in what is ‘his’ chair, is Reggie – moral, perhaps still distinguished but now finding himself growing irritable and prone to bad tempered. His frustrated outbursts that are not at all befitting for the well-mannered or to his own liking. Played by Jeff Rawle, who manages to appear taller on stage than when playing his television characters (which is something normally t’other way round and something not all actors can accomplish), with little nuances throughout; expressions, the odd movement of the hands and head and his varying pitch complete with vocal tremors when body and mood dictate, are superb.

The three accept each other’s changing moods, living benignly and companionably sharing similar backgrounds and looking forward to lunch.

 

Enter Sue Holderness – into our happy little party comes Jean, one time well known performer and something of a diva. Cissy wants everyone to be friends and finds it hard to understand when someone is hurtful towards her while Wilfrid is forced to recognise and confront his own past and behaviour towards others. Jean, however, is also suffering emotionally and has her own private fears. With her instantly recognisable voice, one cannot help but bring Marlene Boyce to mind albeit fleetingly (sorry!), however, with a little effort and the realisation that although distinctive, the tone is less harsh, refined, more rounded and certainly not ‘common’, we realise almost instantly that that this poker backed and well turned out, sharp woman commanding respectability is nothing like Marlene and Jean (or should I say Sue?), in true diva style, pushes her straight back out of our minds in no uncertain terms.

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So here we have our quartet – you need to know the four were not strangers before taking up residence and their histories, secrets and the consequences and effect of these on their individual lives are revealed as the play goes on. This is particularly difficult for Reggie – not only are all his years in struggling to cover up something now wasted and amounting to nothing, his future in which he could have developed (or at least pretended to carve out) a peaceful and happy few last years, is also snatched away by Jean’s presence.

The dynamics now changed with an extra presence and as the four enter each other’s minds, lives and psychological spaces so too, they gradually enter each other’s stage space, moving closer to each other, moving around each other and accepting subtle changes to the unspoken but hitherto observed ‘ownership’ of seating arrangements.

Four well-known actors playing four previously well-known characters with the interesting dimension for the audience that, although not as opera singers, we do know them and know them well. For some of us, there is an element of mirroring as they themselves are now a lot older than when we first knew of them. Not only do they have to persuade us there are no similarities to their personal selves and dispel any preconceived ideas of all previous casts for this play and film, they need to wipe out all notions of their previous characterisation that we are so familiar with. This is accomplished effectively and without question by all four. Clarity, projection and timing was never disappointing, being exactly what one would hope for from all.

Through reminiscences and nostalgic conversation, we also are introduced to Nobby and Cedric (pronounced, as one might expect, ‘Ceeedric’ by the exuberant and quaint Cissy). Nobby provoked some intrigue and audience could be heard in the interval asking if we would ever meet him. However, this is something I am not going to give away!

 

We meet, very briefly, the casually competent uniformed staff member who comes in during the interval to close garden doors and plump up cushions ready for the return from lunch no skulking, apologetic or stiff-pretend-I-don’t-exist black clad figures here – ditto with the hands that bring on and change stage dressing and props later during the performance. A deft, refreshing and well executed insert into the play which is neither a distraction nor a disturbance in our visit to the house and which adds to the performance in its own right

… but back to the gentle (by which I mean nothing murderous or of a highly political nature) plot of which I will not give too much away. Funds need to be raised, the annual concert is on the horizon and we have four accomplished performers already centre stage …… or do we?

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Just what emotional, psychological and physical affects have time and their past had on them, to say nothing of their historic relationships with each other? Tension mounts in the second act as personal thoughts and private fears spill out, emotion and tempers become less easy to manage and there is the added pressure of a deadline to meet. Throughout the rising tensions and personal sorrows and regrets, the play is kept from becoming sombre with humour delivered by Wendi Peters and Paul Nicholas which effectively cuts through any acid or doom as the four become united in their common cause. As the four begin to focus on this, we too, feel the paced, excited anticipation.

Not a being a play in which ground breaking, bold or experimental lighting can be used, we are treated to the subtle effects of a sensitive and understated design throughout the play. A delightfully sunlit room is apparent even before the heat from the sun is alluded to in the text and this light gradually changes from the mid-morning sun filtering through the garden doors and glass ceiling as the days and play progress – of course there is a lot more to the lighting than this single instance and the whole is a wonderful example of unobtrusive, integral lighting throughout that changes with the mood of the play and which sets the feeling and atmosphere in the House and the auditorium.

Oh, yes – I mentioned the set was superb and so it is – ingenious too; fittingly and beautifully constructed as Beecham House, an ingenious slanting ‘cut away’ ceiling. However, the deceptively simple brilliance comes into its own creatively and technically with a special twist at the end of the play. Not to blab about the end of course, and most will have seen the enticing show pictures but it is a glorious melange of colour, costumes, lights and music where the whole befits the style and splendour of this theatre.

Should you go to see it? – yes, most certainly, if only for the opportunity to see these four such well known, universally loved, diverse and accomplished actors on a stage together and playing parts a million miles away from the television characters you know them for, and yes, if you enjoy an evening out full of the feel good factor and some healthy escapism …. and, it goes without saying, much more besides!

If I was pushed to say something less than positive I would admit that it would have been nice if the grand piano, sitting in all its splendid glory and emanating the anticipation of being played, had been used more but, when all’s said and done, what’s a piano tune or two amongst plays? … and, also, but which is by way of a compliment really, with posture, movements and difficulty in walking all played so convincing and even in spite of the low-key gurning, Wendi Peters did look a little young but I’m sure she won’t mind me pointing this out.

As the audience left the theatre, pooling then dispersing into the lamp light of slightly cold, slightly damp and unexpectedly, slightly misty evening there was a definite sense of strangers smiling to each other in the slightly self-conscious companionable silence of having just shared something good together.

Poppy Rose Jervis
April 2018

Photography by TWM, Cheltenham Everyman

From → Drama, Reviews

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