This review of Quartet first appeared in Offbeat News, our bi-monthly newsletter.
In 1999, Harwood highlighted society's casual acceptance of sexual harassment that prevailed when this play was first performed. This production encourages us to reflect on how attitudes have changed in the past twenty years.
On entering the auditorium, the stage set is before us. The furniture is skilfully arranged to allow for a flow of movement to French doors leading into the garden but an abundance of chairs suggests that there will be much sitting down. Six portraits of composers, theatre masks and fans on the walls along with an ornate music stand immediately set the scene as a comfortable music room which is part of a refined, residential home for retired professional opera singers.
The set is soon populated by Reggie and Cissy taking their places in the wing chairs, one engrossed in a book, the other listening to music on headphones. Wilf appears intent on having fun at Cissy's expense with his outlandish sexual suggestions, to which she is oblivious due to hearing more refined music in her ears. Later we learn more about her promiscuous character as she chases periodically into the garden to appreciate sight of the half-naked gardener. Reggie, who is engrossed in the study of art, is a more sober character, showing his disapproval by admonishing Wilf for his dirty language.
Excitement at the news of a new arrival is built by Cissy, which heralds Jean's entrance. Jean was the great opera diva of her day, used to adoration and having her every whim satisfied. She is someone with presence who commands attention. Unfortunately Reggie, an ex-husband, still bears her a grudge and ignores her. A somewhat deflated Jean reveals her spiteful character and slowly develops her hysterical nature as she reveals she is now living in reduced circumstances. Reggie reminds everyone that he is not a charity case but pays for his place in the home. He then goes ballistic, chasing after and swearing at the nurse who denies him marmalade at breakfast.
There is plenty of scope for action and variety of pace in this play for the director to find but this production is like a semi inflated ball which doesn't have quite enough bounce. Many of the lines struck quite a few chords with the elderly audience who could identify with loss of memory, aching hips and other maladies of old age. Getting in and out of the chairs looked rather easy for this cast and one must ask if the walking sticks were actually necessary!
During the first half, Cissy's forgetfulness presented difficulties with timing and the pace. In the second half there was more movement around the costume hamper and business with make-up and sewing, which added interest to the picture without distracting focus from the speaker.
There are similarities with the characters in Rigoletto that the retirees play: Wilf, as Rigoletto, with his court jester humour; Reggie, whose financial superiority is reflected in his role as the Count; and Cissy's promiscuity fits well with her part as Maddalena. Jean's hijacked finances, which leave her vulnerable, echo her part as Rigoletto's kidnapped daughter, Gilda. An opera singer playing any of these roles would show supreme confidence and self assurance. Some of this theatricality was captured in this production, most particularly when the cast were dressed in the wonderful costumes for their roles in Rigoletto.
This is a witty script of its era and gives interesting, eccentric roles for actors of a more senior age. As a debut production for director Belinda Gee, it is very commendable and well supported by the excellent staging and costumes.Reviewed by Ann Neuff, former Head of Drama at Hitchin Girls School, and A-level examiner in Drama and Theatre Studies