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Brighton Year-Round 2020


New Venture Theatre, Brighton

Genre: Comedy, Contemporary, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Tap, Theatre

Venue: New Venture Theatre Studio


Low Down

Richard Lindfield directs directs Michael Folkard’s country house feel suggests an Agatha Christie. It’s a beautifully detailed simulacra of a genteel institution, lit by Apollo Videux (operator Esme Bird) with a June noon, several July and finally October evenings. Ian Black’s Production Manager. Gladrags supply costumes. Samantha Brennan and Sally Wilson sing as a pre-set; Gary Nock’s musical accompaniment drives it. Till March 21st.


A lot’s happened to Ronald Harwood’s 1999 play Quartet. The 2014 film directed by Dustin Hofmann involved an ingenious solution to the ending that Harwood declares he prefers. Some might like the emotional truth of the original.

If you know the film you’ll have to see which option this production goes for in this heart-warming, almost tragi-comic coming-together of four old opera singers at a musical retirement home. This quartet shares a history – and two of them a disastrous brief marriage.

In this production there’s a wonderful surprise, a pre-set of two singers, Samantha Brennan and Sally Wilson. They sing a soprano and mezzo song respectively then join for a stunning duet, the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hofmann.It’s breathtakingly harmonized and almost brings tears to the eyes before the play even starts. Gary Nock ably accompanies at the piano.

Set originally in 1999, it’s been slightly stretched here to suggest 2020, with people now referring to ‘last singing fifty years ago’. John Hartnett’s sparkling Wilfred Bond bounces in on a walking stick. Once Rigoletto the ill-starred jester and too often Figaro he hides an acute emotional intelligence and ingenious problem-solving behind lecherous bluster, visited on Ann Atkins’ forgetful Cecily Robson, known as Cissy.

She can’t hear anything at this moment, off on a cloud of CD unknowing. Indeed it’s the famous Rigoletto Quartet from the opera each of the four characters performed in a famous recording back in 1971.

Hartnett’s piercing voice – a commanding version of someone who could project a fine baritone – rings with lothario-like conviction. It hides naturally a sensitivity to others, rather than touchiness to himself, the opposite of his friend Raymond Tongue’s Reggie Paget full of learning who nevertheless credits Wilf with blinding insights he writes down.

Richard Lindfield directs this NVT production with acute comic timing hushing the tocks of eternity’s waiting room. If that sounds lugubrious it isn’t: from the first filthy line things only get better. Lust and a would-be priapic rage at whatever’s dying off marks Harwood’s peculiar gift – present in The Dresser or The Handyman – of imbuing old characters with an edge of danger. And fallible memory tinged with panic, not by the afflicted, but those around them, fearful they’ll be carted off when discovered.

It’s the finest NVT Studio set I can remember. Michael Folkard’s cosy angled suite of chairs with book-lined cabinets a writing-desk and behind a bottle-green pair of walls hung with paintings and sage green doors. There’s a beautifully modelled corner of a well-lived-in but smart home for old musicians. Folkard’s country house feel suggests an Agatha Christie. It’s a beautifully detailed simulacra of a genteel institution, lit by Apollo Videux (operator Esme Bird) with a June noon, several July and finally October evenings.

In Tongue’s hands Reggie comes across as a rumpled and grumpy Kenneth Clark – the jazz-loving politician, though with the other Kenneth Clark’s learnedness. Who these days recalls the great music critic Ernst Newman’s Wagner Nights? Harwood and Reggie remind us it’s still worth reading if you like Wagner (no, we don’t get Wagner, it’s a German-free zone despite the bust on one bookcase). Tongue conveys Reggie’s intellectual acuity and when rising vocally much passion, though the hurt core of Reggie is really difficult to insinuate. Tongue also has impeccable timing – and all the cast show a blissful capacity for it.

Reggie was married to Jean Horton. What he doesn’t know is that to replace the latest luckless soul carted off to oblivion for being oblivious, the very same Jean is descending on them. Two Harwood tricks become one might say musical gags: Cissy’s forgetting the crucial information like a name, and Cissy herself always bursting in when an intimate detail’s to be confided. It’s clever, touching and not a little maddening even if you know the plot. Atkins is superb as the batty, ample forgetful and good-natured contralto – a low vocal range they don’t have any more either (think Kathleen Ferrier).

When Reggie discovers Horton’s descending, he’s apoplectic with rage, Tongue’s face balefully turned away. Tongue well conveys the vulnerability behind splenetic plots including matron Angelique’s refusal to give him marmalade, but instead apricot jam. Carol Croft (also a Stage Manager) harrumphs silently across the stage in a few beats to following insults from the cerebral Reggie. She plays this through even to curtain-call. Quintet?

Enter Sheelagh Baker, rather armoured than vulnerable to start with as Jean Horton the one who gave it all up. Except it wasn’t so much that she gave her voice up, it gave hers up after her first child. It takes a while for this to unpeel: that Cissy’s gift of course.

The rapprochement between her and Reggie is infinitely edgy, and most infinitely touching: Baker and Tongue move around each and manage to make distance and proximity work. It involves lime marmalade.

Baker’s is a prickly part: the imperious Jean who still demands to be made up, even by a fellow luminary, though she does her own eyes. Baker executes this neatly. She’s adamantine but breaks into more soulful reminiscence, visibly thawing throughout. Sometimes the vulnerability frays more as it should. Jean really is a prima donna, with all the trimmings. Baker takes a comic blade to her remarks and cuts them into origami figures.

But that’s to anticipate. So will they all decid – now Jean’s here – to perform that famous Quartet? Only Jean says she has a problem. There is a solution staring them in the face and Cissy holds the key.

And like The French Lieutenant’s Woman, there are now two endings. Though there’s only one stage detail that baffles: the couples seem to be paired up contrary to what they’ve just worked out. You must see this if you know the film only, or care about music, ageing, friendship and achingly lost love. This compares well with any set of performances, and this quartet has turned up the volume.