Arts: Theatre: Retirement home for old jokes

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The Independent Culture
THE NEW play by Ronald Harwood, Quartet, is an unashamed - no, shameless - vehicle for four feisty old troupers whose task is to make us laugh a little, sigh a little and cry a little as they take us into bittersweet world of facing up to age and mortality. As Alan Bennett once remarked: In England, if you can eat a boiled egg at 90, they give you the Order of Merit. Certainly, no producer threw up the chance of riches and a rapturous ovation by putting a handpicked bunch of veteran thesps on a stage. In Christopher Morahan's doggedly efficient production, they are played by Donald Sinden (fruity and jowl-waggling as ever), Stephanie Cole (whose scatty child-like character bounds about like Nana, the adorable canine in Peter Pan, and austerely regal Angela Thorne and a nicely prim and humane Alec McCowan - so the only surprise is that the fans restrain themselves from cheering until the end.

The setting is a residential home and from the look of Tim Goodchild's country house terrace with its lone table, you might think we were in for brooding shades of David Storey's Home. In fact, Harwood's dire, clunking piece is much closer to Waiting In The Wings, the Noel Coward play about a charity nursing home for superannuated actresses. Here, however, the characters are elderly retired opera singers.

At the start, we are introduced to three residents, former colleagues whose famous recording of Verdi's Rigoletto has just been re-issued. The lofty level of the piece is immediately established. With Cole safely unable to hear because she is clamped to her Walkman, Sinden's roguishly randy Wilfred tells her what he would like to do to her when she is bending over putting on her surgical stockings. It is not the last time you feel that someone should report the show to Age Concern. This trio is then surprised by the arrival of a fourth member of that Rigoletto cast (Angela Thorne's grand Jean) whose presence re-opens wounds because Alec McCowan's donnish Reggie was one of her many former husbands. The inmates of the home are mounting a celebration to mark Verdi's birthday and our foursome are invited to sing the great quartet from their beloved opera. Will they be able to persuade the haughtily reluctant Jean? What kind of statement about themselves will they be making in trying to perform again?

There must be a special poignancy in growing old for those whose younger selves live on, callously ageless, in musical recordings.

However, this promising subject is squandered in excruciating jokes about physical decline, predictable revelations and unconvincing uplift about how performing in their current state of disrepair will help them come to terms with the present. "Let go, Jean. Let go. Face reality for once in your life," says Reggie deathlessly when Jean makes the perfectly fair point that she prefers to revere the memory of what she once was.

I shall not give away the ending except to say that you wonder what the hell you are supposed to be applauding - having wondered throughout why the hell you are there.

Paul Taylor

Booking to 4 March, 0171-369 1740. A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper