Theatre: Oh no, not Budleigh Salterton

Quartet Albery, London The Speculator Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh Nixon's Nixon Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh The Wake King's Theatre, Edinburgh

What a lot of white hair there is on stage at the Albery! Donald Sinden has wild flowing locks, as if preparing to play King Lear in the storm scene. Alec McCowen has neatly brushed hair to go with the creases of his sandy suit and his neatly brushed delivery. Stephanie Cole bumbles around like a jolly games mistress, with a whirl of cotton wool as a hairdo. And Angela Thorne - when she arrives - displays her unbending character, with her hair severely swept back. This monochrome range of white and off-white hairstyles fixes Ronald Harwood's Quartet firmly in the genre of the twilight play or Saga saga.

Three former opera singers (Sinden, McCowen and Cole) are living amiably enough in a charitable home for elderly showbiz types when they are joined by a fourth and trickier new member (Thorne). Is there a chance these four will ever sing together? That's the set-up. The main gag in this genre is that people with white hair still feel randy and have outrageous thoughts. Sentimentality is built into the concept. In terms of traditional West End ethics, if you're young and have a good time, you're a hedonist; if you're old and have a good time, you're a hero.

The cast carry personal stereos and mention hip-replacements. Otherwise this world of Wilfreds, Cedrics and Reginalds would be hard to date precisely within the last 40 years. There are three sets of french windows and within the first 10 minutes there's a comic reference to Budleigh Salterton.

There is a concert coming up at the retirement home to celebrate Verdi's birthday. Three out of four of the characters are keen to sing the quartet from Act 3 of Rigoletto and one isn't. That's a shame; as an audience we are fascinated by the prospect of hearing these four actors sing the Verdi roles. That would be a collector's item.

The preparations for the big night, as the cast do their make-up, put on costumes and discuss their love lives, pale beside Harwood's own stagecraft in The Dresser. There is one moment, when, with an imperious command, Thorne stops Cole from absconding just before the performance that is a distinct echo of "Sir" in The Dresser stopping the train at Crewe as it's departing.

As the jovial lech, Sinden punctuates the evening with his own exclamation marks. His eyes bulge and his cheeks wobble as he shoots expressions from side to side. He waves his walking stick and gooses the new arrival. One visual gag rapidly erases the last: for a semiotician, it's an exercise in speed reading. But the evening rests entirely on the charms of the individual actors. Christopher Morahan's wan production offers little sense of what it is like to be in an old people's home.

Our mild interest in Quartet is sustained on two fronts. One is waiting either for Sinden's next burst of comic business or McCowen's next burst of outrage against the nurse who didn't give him marmalade for breakfast. (Both actors give performances that cry out for better material.) The other is waiting for the four of them to sing. But the plot is a cop-out and Quartet limps, embarrassingly, towards its final and inconclusive curtain.

`Quartet': Albery, WC2 ( 0171 369 1730) to 4 March 2000

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