Ronald Harwood, when asked about his inspiration for Quartet, recalls a scribbled note which grew into a more fully formed piece: “home for old opera singers, end with the Quartet from Rigoletto.” It is these old opera singers which he presents his audience with, warts and all, and, in a business dominated by young up-and-comings, it is a pleasure to see some seasoned pros shine in a play tailored to them.
Though none of the cast are still waiting to receive their bus pass they perform with an energy that belies their years. Gwen Taylor’s Cissy is a constant bustling presence, welcoming back absent friends from imagined Indian sojourns or chasing the handsome gardener. Equally, Michael Jayston’s clean cut Reggie, whose diatribe on the shortcomings of apricot jam when compared to lime marmalade is very neatly observed, impresses in his reserved characterisation. However, the undoubted star turn comes from Timothy West with his Wilfred Bond, a gruff and ribald baritone, constantly humming, coughing or chuckling at a smutty wisecrack; many directed toward the blissfully unaware Cissy. The three’s tranquil world is disrupted by the arrival of Reggie’s ex-wife and former operatic superstar Jean, played here with icy certainty by Susannah York, and her refusal to join them in the singing of Rigoletto for their gala performance.
Harwood creates a world of retirement homeliness where the audience truly believes that greying artistes can come for their twilight years; there is in fact a real comparison: Brinsworth House, a home in Twickenham for members of the entertainment community.
The play is clever too in its construction with the action opening on the current ‘quartet’ a voice short and awaiting their fourth; in fact, more sombrely, they are all waiting in a literal sense. Yet in spite of this the play’s possibilities never truly deliver, the relationships are touched upon only fleetingly with too much of the stage action spent on the repetition of gags which tire quickly. In the quartet’s triumphant ‘return to youth,’ recorded heckles from the audience detract from a moment which should be handled in a more sensitive, touching way and with many questions left unanswered the play ends far too abruptly.
In all, it is a show lacking the sheer entertainment of the markedly similar Forever Young, staged earlier this year at Nottingham Playhouse. Whilst Quartet did have moments of real tenderness and a cast which made light of what the script might have lacked, the high notes of their swansong were never quite hit.
Quartet plays at Nottingham's Theatre Royal from Monday 19 to Saturday 24 July 2010.