Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 22nd September, 2017
Ronald Harwood’s play is set firmly in Waiting For God territory, here a retirement home for opera singers and classical musicians. Among the esoteric inmates we meet eccentric Cicely, rambunctious Wilfred – who seems more at home in a Carry On film than the Royal Opera House – and prissy Reggie who makes pronouncements about Art – when he’s not hurling abuse at the staff who deny him his marmalade fix. The trio appear to have accepted their fate and are looking forward to performing in a gala to celebrate Verdi’s birthday. Their peace is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of former diva and Reggie’s ex-wife, Jean.
Will three become four in order to perform a quartet? Will they be able to recapture at least a glimmer of their former glory?
These are questions posed by the plot but really it’s a play about things we can all recognise: the ageing process, our own mortality, what will be our legacy…
The four singers are presented as flawed individuals but above all as relatable, likeable human beings. The unseen villains of the piece are the spectres of death and dementia which make their presence known from time to time. The characters approach old age and infirmity humorously and philosophically but every now and then we glimpse the sting of their predicament. Kevin Hand brings a lot of fun as the coarse and lecherous Wilfred while Graham Tyrell’s effete and brittle Reggie is a perfect foil. Juliet Grundy is endearing as the dramatic and lively Cecily, gradually losing her marbles before our very eyes. Margot McCleary’s haughty, haunted diva has an air of faded royalty. We like them all immensely and enjoy their company.
Director Estelle Hand balances comedy with poignancy – Harwood never allows us to dwell in mawkishness, touching on themes such as the sexual appetites and histories of the elderly, the necessity of living in the present rather than the past, of making the most of whatever time we might have left. Hand gets nuanced and well-observed performances from her cast. Yes, there are a few first-night stumbling over lines, but the tone is spot on.
“Art is meaningless unless it makes you feel,” observes Wilfred in a rare moment of insight. This entertaining and touching production certainly makes us do that.