Quartet by Ronald Harwood

Review by Jamie Cracker

“The Shepperton Players treated their audience to a fun, well-acted and heart-warming production of Ronald Harwood’s comedy, Quartet. The play was first performed at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre in Guildford in 1999, to critical acclaim, before moving to the West End later that same year. It tells the story of four retired opera singers coming to terms with the fact that they are not as young as they once were, as they prepare for their performance in a gala to celebrate Verdi’s birthday, held at their retirement home every year.

The original play was both praised as being vibrant and shameless in its good-humoured approach to mortality, and criticised as having a very abrupt ending. Nevertheless, Shepperton director Diana Denton Baker proficiently handled the script’s slow pace and difficult finale, milking the humour of the piece where possible and filling its simplicity with touching moments, making for an enjoyable story that allowed the audience to get to know every character.

As the play opened we saw a well-designed set, functional and attractive, that was clearly passable for a retirement home of moderate grandeur. The action of Act One took place on an outdoor terrace on the stage apron, marked with potted plants, garden chairs, and conservatory-like French windows on a flat behind it, through which the interior of the home was visible. Here, set and lighting design worked together beautifully, creating the indoor/outdoor illusion by lighting the terrace in a sunny straw wash, and the music room behind in a darker, pinkish tone.

The lighting of the piece was kept reasonably simple throughout and was very effective, complementing the action on the stage and the themes of the piece. The gradual reddening of the lighting to indicate evening drawing in was successful, and the coloured wash on the curtains during scene changes was reflective of the gala theme.

As the actors made their entrances, it was obvious that a lot of thought had gone into the choice of costumes. Each outfit was well suited to the character. Cecily, in bright colours, looked eccentric and girlish in contrast to Jean’s prim white ensemble and string of pearls. The men were markedly different at first glance; Reginald impeccable in his suit, with Wilfred in more comfortable attire that suited his character. Even the dressing gowns worn in the first half of Act Two matched the respective personalities.

The co-ordination of seating the four lead actors on the three garden chairs throughout Act One was well executed. However in Act Two, once the garden flat had been moved, revealing the indoor music room in full, the two stage-right armchairs seemed a little close to the wings, leaving  at moments, poor Reggie half concealed by the curtain.

During Act Two, scene changes were made twice by drawing the curtains across the stage. Though covered by music and lighting in fitting with the play, these changes were a little long, the audience losing focus and beginning to talk amongst themselves.

It was a surprise each time to find that the changes made to the set during these intermissions were minimal – a mirror and basket added after the first, and a screen and clothes rail in the second. One can only assume that the costume changes were the culprits of the lengthy pauses, however, would it not have been possible to conceal at least parts of the outfits underneath the actors’ dressing gowns? After all, in the dressing room scene, the characters are getting changed anyway.

As a whole, the cast of Quartet had an excellent dynamic, the highlights of the play being the thoughtful little exchanges between the characters, particularly those of Cissy and Wilf. Anne Wheeldon as the flighty Cissy was full of energy – she lifted every scene she graced with her tireless commitment to character. Anne had outstanding physicality throughout, showing Cissy’s eccentricity, anxiousness and childlike behaviour with movement and posture as well as line delivery, which was always played out to the audience.

The men had an excellent natural chemistry, and Derek Stringer seemed incredibly comfortable onstage as the lovable rogue Wilfred, delivering all of his one-liners beautifully. Wilf’s close relationship and cheeky adoration of Cissy was a treat to watch, and his speech on ageing in Act One was notably touching. While Wilf had the lion’s share of the jokes, he was in places upstaged by Reggie (played with strait-laced prudishness by Peter Smith), whose startling, manic outbursts as he gurned at the invisible matron who refused to serve him marmalade were very memorable, and perhaps stole the show for many of the audience members.

Doris Neville-Davies was perfection in the role of Jean, the star fallen on hard times, fearfully clinging to memories of her heyday. Doris had incredible stage presence, and a poised, collected manner which well reflected the character. Her economy of movement meant that she largely commanded the stage with her voice; a technique suitable to Jean, the former opera star. She delivered her satirical one-liners and poignant speeches with equal skill.

And of course, not forgetting the wonderfully camp cameo of Robert Johnson as the heckling Bobby Swanson, who made his way through the audience in the final moments of the play delivering his lines with superiority and panache. All four leads carried off their characters’ quirks and neuroses beautifully and with dedication, resulting in a united, believable rendition.

The overall pacing of the play felt a little slow in places: the script was partly to blame, but the pick-ups between lines could have been snappier. However there were enough moments – such as the announcement of ‘lunch!’ at the end of Act One, and the use of cross-cut in the dressing room scene, that this wasn’t much of an issue. The overall production was understated, at the surface fun and light hearted, but carried a more meaningful poignancy throughout. Subtly executed, it left the audience contently mulling over the themes of love, loss and what it really means to be alive.”