Ronald Harwood’s play about four elderly opera singers living in a home for retired musicians first saw the light of day in 1999, but it was not until 2012 that most people, myself included, came to know it through a film version that starred Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins. The film featured many more characters, too, whereas the stage version is a four-hander – just one of the meanings of its title, the other being a reference to the quartet from Rigoletto that will be sung as part of the home’s annual concert to celebrate Verdi’s birthday.
The action of the play is, by necessity, limited to just one set – a music room, beyond which is a small terrace leading to the garden. All those responsible for its construction, and for the glorious props contained within it, really do deserve gold stars because it is absolutely magnificent and totally looks the part. More stars, too, for those in charge of sourcing the excellent costumes, one of which, Rigoletto’s, was also the source of one of the funniest lines in the play when it was described as making him look ‘like a camel who has gone to the wrong osteopath’.
On the down side, there really is very little action as the characters, being elderly, spend much of their time sitting, and the pace did tend to drag a little on opening night. To be fair, this is probably partly the nature of the piece and, whilst the prompt’s services were definitely needed once or twice, I felt that she was at times a little over-enthusiastic in her responses during what seemed like natural pauses on the actors’ parts.
There is no starring role in this play, with each of the four having equal billing. Paul de Burton quickly establishes the personality of womaniser Wilfred Bond, coming across as a loveable rogue but with his physical mannerisms suggesting a frailty that comes with the debilitating ailments of which his character speaks, and with which many of the audience were nodding in agreement. If I didn’t know better, I could really have believed that this character was Paul, so much does he actually become Wilfred.
Jane Sykes never fails to impress in her roles, and this one is no exception. She plays Jean Horton, a much-married diva whose unexpectedly reduced circumstances have led her to charity and a place in the home where one of her previous husbands, Reginald Paget, is also living. As with Paul, I totally believed in her characterisation.
For the first few minutes of the evening, Alan Whitty (Reginald) worried me, as he looked rather more like a retired businessman than an opera singer, but once his character’s fussiness became obvious (and he relaxed into the part), I could quite see that a dark suit would be de rigeur for him. I also loved the way he broke off from normal conversation whenever he spotted in the garden the staff member whom he absolutely hated because she always refused him marmalade at breakfast, switching back to his normal behaviour immediately afterwards.
Of the four characters I found Kim Walker’s Cecily Robson the least believable, mainly because she seems rather too normal for someone who for at least part of the time has clearly lost the plot, but it may be that this character is simply less well drawn than the others so there is not so much for her to work with. However, I must congratulate her for not showing even a glimmer of a smirk during those periods when Wilfred is talking to her, safe in the knowledge that with her headphones on she cannot hear the outrageous things he is saying. Cecily can’t, but I’m sure Kim can, loud and clear!
Finally, just a word about the curtain call, or lack of. The last scene of the play is the concert, so the characters take their bows at the end and leave the stage, never to return. This seems a little unfair to the actors, whom everyone clearly expected to come back and take their bows as themselves, but we waited in vain….
There are further performances at 7.30 on 6-8 April.