reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 3 April
“If only youth knew, if only age could…” It’s as true in 2018 as 500 years ago. In many ways it sums up Peter Rowe’s touring production of Ronald Harwood’s “Quartet”, the story of four once-famous opera singers living their last years (until shunted off into specialist care) in a retirement home for retired musicians.
Three are reasonably long-term residents. Reginald Paget (Jeff Rawle) is an embittered tenor, who once itched to sing Wagner but whose career confined him to the 19th century Italian repertoire. Baritone Wilfred Bond (Paul Nicholas had been viewed as a plausible successor-rival to Gobbi.
Mezzo-soprano Cecily Robson – “Cissie” – played by Wendi Peters teeters on the brink of Alzheimer’s, much to the concern of the two men who recognise that their NSP motto (no self-pity) cannot stretch to the home’s requirement that residents must basically be able to lead independent lives.
They squabble, Bond fantasises about sexual adventures past but not present or future and look forward to the performance all are required to give on 10 October to celebrate Verdi’s birthday. Then new resident Jean Horton (Sue Holderness) arrives. She was a much-lauded soprano who quit at what seemed to be the height of her powers – and fame.
Rowe’s direction paints all this with a broad brush which at times has the peculiar effect of distancing the four characters from our understanding, and so our sympathies. Rawle’s real pain at now being forced to rub shoulders on a daily basis with his ex-wife does come over clearly but some of the humour still seems forced rather than natural.
Peters dodders amusingly enough as Cissie while Holderness radiates the crumbling arrogance of the diva clinging onto past glories. Nicholas is successful in showing us a performer able to step occasionally outside the personality he once inhabited to accept the realities of what is now and (inevitably) will have to be.
There’s an excellent set by Phil R Daniels and Charles Cusick-Smith which gives the impression that the comforts afforded by the home are superficial rather than actual. The costumes donned by the quartet for the Verdi have an air of something salvaged from one of those cash-strapped touring companies I remember from the 1950s.
Broad brush-strokes may account for the awkwardness of the karaoke-style performance of the Rigoletto quartet with which the play ends. I don’t recall audience titters from either the 1999 London première or the 2010 tour which in Rowe’s production swamp the actual music. But memory is a fallible thing, especially as one grows older.
Four star rating.
Quartet runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre as part of a national tour until 7 April with matinées on 5 and 7 April.