Association of Community Theatre

Show Reviews November 2017


by   Ronald Harwood

Manchester Athenaeum


I have been a fan of Ronald Harwood since I watched his History of Theatre programme on T.V. some years ago and since I was given a copy of his book “All the World’s a Stage” by the cast of “Oklahoma!” which I had just directed.  Having read it avidly at the time, I still dip into it and I can recommend it to all involved in this adventure of ours as a good read.  It is, after all, pretty much our history as actors and so there was an added incentive to see your production.


The story of Quartet involves four elderly ex-opera singers who are now living in a retirement home catering for people who have devoted their lives to music, in all its varied professions.  Our four are wondering if they will ever have the opportunity to sing together again. At least two definitely are, one is not sure, and the other one is definitely against it when the opportunity to sing does arise with a projected Verdi anniversary celebration planned.  Their beloved quartet from “Rigoletto”, a fond memory for them, is suggested as part of a gala concert at the home.  It becomes a chance for three of them when Reggie changes his mind. But how to persuade Jean, the recently arrived house-mate to forget the past and “come aboard” doesn’t look as though it will be easy, so deep are her emotions.


Your set, designed by Sue Maher, was a triumph – completely different from others I have seen.  The stage was divided into two, horizontally.  The front half was a splendid seating area where the residents could relax, read, chat, socialise, doze or whatever, and was divided from a similar area behind by a wide trellis work, virtually covered with greenery and containing plants and white flowers.  There was an opening SL through which one could enter or access the rest of the house.  Tantalising bits of the room – photographs, pictures, chairs, piano, glimpses of its use – could be glimpsed through the trellis and was revealed in all its glory when the greenery area disappeared in Act 2 and its full decor appeared; now full stage size.  In the final couple of scenes, the story sprang to life, full of movement and change with the setting up of a large chest CS full of costumes for the characters to try on prior to the performance.


Much of the play is conversational and throughout we learn of the backgrounds, relationships, personalities and experiences of our quartet as they reminisce, bicker and “score off each other”, in what is now their home.  There is much humour, mainly from Wilfred, much of it “earthy”, but also,  as we listen and watch reactions, we are made aware of backgrounds, emotions, feelings, affections and sensitivities in their careers and, indeed, their very lives.  In a way, it is interesting for us, their audience, to hear what life is now and the drastic changes made, accepted, borne and ultimately what the future holds.  There are messages for all of us in this and much credit must be given to the actors for dealing with the sheer weight of dialogue involved and emotions felt, as they tell their stories gently, humorously, dramatically and with deep feeling.  It was reassuring in a way for us, because, in spite of everything they are still performers, skilled musically, but performers nevertheless and we appreciate that.  Hearts and souls were on view on your stage to-night.


For the final scene, the room was transformed into two dressing rooms, male and female, back to back with seats, mirrors etc.  To those of us who had experienced such activities, memories flooded back.  The preparation, applying make-up, getting ready was so professionally done by the cast that we felt we were watching a real-life situation.  Cissie and Jean in one area sewing, helping with make-up, fussing with hair; in another area, Reggie trying to fix Wilfred’s artificial hump – all going on a few feet away yet as if working in separate rooms with no contact.  This was just what it must be like before any sort of performance in any theatre, anywhere, anytime.  Fascinating to watch because its what all actors – performers – go through every time – we all know only too well.  Well done.


Carol Sutclffe played Cecily Robson with a deal of joy, optimism, and excitement as she was able to break the news of Jean’s arrival to the two men.  She was full of affection, sympathy, reassurance and humour, and told her story with a degree of emotional beauty about what was happening to her, before falling asleep.  She tried hard to integrate Jean and we actually could feel her thrill when Jean finally decided to sing and her absolute pleasure at being able to sing with her again.  She didn’t want ever to “sound like a car that wouldn’t start” and the incredible expressions which flitted across her face as she practised miming the singing were quite memorable.  We felt her despair and attempt to leave the home and return home when her costume doesn’t fit.  She comes round when it is altered and she is tacked into it, and her comment –“what is art about if it doesn’t make you feel?” says it all really.


Chris Sturmey played Wilfred Bond and had to be drafted in at the virtual last minute when his predecessor had to drop out, thus literally saving the sinking ship.  Well done!  Full of earthy humour and career anecdotes from the past.  Good to have someone like him around in their situation at their time of life, I suppose, but his remarks didn’t always go down well.  But he was good fun, dependable and devoted to the others as well as his own achievements, his past and any future experience there may be.  Chris played him as a lovable character to have around when one needed comfort, company and sympathy.


Roger Browne was Reginald Paget, ex-husband of Jean and now, a man of conflicting emotions.  He painted a wonderful picture of old-age – watering eyes, can’t remember lines, eventually one’s own name, problems and the future – “where would I go?”  His distress at being denied marmalade at breakfast and the malice expressed so impressively across the garden at the poor unfortunate he thought responsible, so lovingly and emotionally balanced by his moving reaction to Jean’s present of a jar.  He showed leadership, intellect, dignity, a depth of feeling for the others, while still smouldering for Jean despite the past.  His announcement of the performance was truly fitting for his character and his mimed performance of the Rigoletto worthy of La Scala,  Milan.


Sue Maher played Jean Norton with dignity, poise and the standards befitting the stardom she experienced.  She spoke feelingly and with mixed emotions of the past, the resentments and the highs in equal measure.  Emotion and sentiment delineated what she said because the memories were raw and not easy to talk about.  She held out about agreeing to perform until the last minute, but once she made a decision, it was as if the lights has come on and we realised what had been at stake here in this story and how four actors and a director, who miraculously also one of them, had caused that to happen.


Verdi would have been impressed with the anniversary celebration in his name and the performance of the famous quartet would have given him much pleasure – most professionally presented.  Miming such a project is so difficult, especially in a foreign language.

Congratulations to Roger on his memorable dual role.  Depths have to be plumbed, backgrounds have to be dug up with manufactured realism, emotions have to be found, humour timed and delivered and the whole structure built up.  He managed it all with the help of three others - dedicated, skilful actors (how refreshing to see mature experience at work), and an unseen army behind.  Well done indeed.


Many thanks for your warm welcome.  Happy playmaking.