FringeReview UK 2018
Peter Rowe directs this Everyman Theatre tour revival of Ronald Harwood’s 1999 Quartet. Phil R Daniels and Charles Cusick-Smith’s country house feel suggests an Agatha Christie. It’s a beautifully detailed simulacra of a genteel institution, lit by Michael E Hall with a June noon, several July and finally October evenings. Matt Bugg’s musical arrangements are gloved for the cast. Till March 31st. Then touring (consult Everyman Theatre website).
A lot’s happened to Ronald Harwood’s 1999 play Quartet since it played the Theatre Royal, Brighton in 2010 containing what turned out sadly to be Susannah York’s last role: the soprano who gave up singing at thirty. 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.
Peter Rowe directs this Everyman Theatre tour 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 a cosy angled set with parquet floor, Phil R Daniels and Charles Cusick-Smith’s country house feel suggests an Agatha Christie. However in the detailed wood panelled drawing room with bay windows stage right (past which flits Pamela Hardman’s matron Angelique) there’s also fire alarm instructions and a noticeboard. There’s also the matter of Simon Markey’s character popping up. You’ll have to wait for that. It’s a beautifully detailed simulacra of a genteel institution, lit by Michael E Hall with a June noon, several July and finally October evenings. Matt Bugg’s musical arrangements are gloved for the cast.
It’s 1999. Paul Nicholas’ Reginald Paget 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 Wendi Peters’ forgetful Cecily Robson, known as Cissy.
We know Peters can famously sing, though she’s playing someone who feels they might be a bit past it. 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 1961.
Nicholas’ 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 Wilfred Bond, Jeff Rawle full of learning who nevertheless credits Paget with blinding insights he writes down.
In Rawle’s hands Bond comes across as a rumpled and grunpy 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 Paget repeatedly 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 portrait of Mozart).
Paget 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 vey same Horton 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 details’ to be confided. It’s clever, touching and not a little maddening even if you know the plot. Peters 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 Paget discovers Horton’s descending, he’s apoplectic with rage, Rawle’s face balefully even more brick-like than usual. Rawle well conveys the vulnerability behind splenetic plots including matron Angelique’s refusal to give him marmalade, but instead apricot jam.
Enter Holderness, rather armoured than vulnerable to start with as 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 Rawle’s Paget is infinitely edgy, and most infinitely touching. It involves lime marmalade. It’s a difficult part Holderness portrays: the imperious Horton who still demands to be made up, even by a fellow luminary, though she does her own eyes. Holderness executes this neatly. She’s adamantine. Sometimes the vulnerability might fray more, but it’s more than a valid reading. Horton really is a prima donna, with all the trimmings. Holderness takes a comic blade to her remarks and cuts them into origami figures.
But that’s to anticipate. They’ve all decided – now Horton’s here – to perform that famous Quartet. Only Horton says she can’t sing. 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. You must see this if you know the film only, or care about music, ageing, friendship and achingly lost love. This compares well with the 2010 set of performances, and Holderness has turned up the volume.