London

Theatre review: The Potsdam Quartet, Jermyn Street Theatre

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The title might lead you to expect that the main focus of David Pinner's bilious 1973 comedy would be on the “Big Four” – Truman, Stalin, Churchill and Atlee – and their meeting in Occupied Germany in July 1945. But these statesmen play second fiddle, so to speak, to the internationally renowned British string quartet (very loosely based on the Griller, their real-life equivalent), who have been hired to provide the entertainment. While the world is being carved up at the Conference offstage, the play is bound in an antechamber where the highly strung musicians kill time between performances by tearing one another apart. 

The cast of Anthony Biggs' assured revival do a fine job of pulling you into the bitchy, bickering intimacy of a foursome whose twenty-five years together have bred festering resentments that could now prove fatal. And the production conjures up well the camp, fractious atmosphere of a scenario where the men in their RAF uniforms (two of them are gay) twit and flirt with the uncomprehending young Russian guard (Ged Petunkas) and get out their knitting (for the war effort) even as they themselves become seriously unravelled. 

Their driven, East End Jewish leader Aaron (Michael Matus) is desperate to keep the quartet going.  But Stefan Bednarczyk's lethally embittered John is spoiling for its destruction, aggrieved at all the other members, including his homosexual partner, the fey, self-hating Ronnie (excellent Philip Bird).  Meanwhile Daniel Crowder's likeable, blokey cellist, Douglas, is harbouring a revelation that may seal its fate in any case.  

The trouble, though, is that the play makes it hard to care one way or another. It both acknowledges the disproportion between their relatively petty squabbles and the momentous decisions being taken by the other quartet at the Conference (whose supposedly constructive example they should emulate) and argues, through Aaron, that the making of chamber music can transcend differences with a soul-nurturing sublimity that is beyond the deliberations of power-brokers. 

But because, in the nature of the set-up, we never get to see the musicians perform, we seem to be trapped throughout with a bunch of suffocatingly self-involved neurotics. Their impressions of the unseen statesmen (Churchill snoozing during a concert, Truman playing jazz on the piano) are never sharp enough to make the Conference spring to unexpected life and their own political disputes (over the intentions, say, of Uncle Joe Stalin) too often sound unspontaneous and expository. For a play set at a critical historical juncture, The Potsdam Quartet feels peculiarly hermetic.

To November 23; 020 7287 2875

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