Just as there will always be an England, one hopes the West End will always find room for something as likably shameless as “Quartet.” Is that to praise with faint damns? Not on your life, though perhaps that’s the wrong expression to use for ashow whose aging characters are in varying ways confronting death. But freed from the oppressive pretensions of the overrated “Taking Sides,” Ronald Harwood has written a flat-out crowd-pleaser that will give pleasure to that public — ill-catered to of late — wanting the illusion of depth served up by a company of stars whose unabashed theatrical juices date back to the bygone era of Harwood’s own “The Dresser.” This is a show for those who immediately grasp references to Oliver Messel and Violetta, which might be to say the generation that came of age in the pre-“Closer” culture.
How else to account for the delights on this occasion of Donald Sinden, an actor-knight whose innate fruitiness for once doesn’t teeter into the realm of the overripe. Sinden plays Wilfred Bond, one of four erstwhile opera stars now way past their prime who are reunited in their dotage in a retirement home not far from London. (As Wilf sees it, they are “inmates,” even if their prevailing motto must be NSP: “no self-pity.”)
In the past, this actor’s definable sonority has been as much an irritation as a boon. So it’s a pleasant surprise to find the voice perfectly matched to the salad days of a blustery baritone who talks a lot about sex — “tits” figure in his initial remarks; elsewhere, with regard to lower-region padding, he calls himself “a three-sock man” — but gets very little of it. (Sinden is by some measure the only one of the players to look or sound remotely musical.)
Wilfred is a big part, and Sinden — hair as puffed-up as his character’s ego — gives an accordingly large comic performance, though it’s to the credit of Christopher Morahan’s direction that no one performer is allowed to commandeer the play. As Cecily Robson, the object of Wilf’s lustful affection, a sweet-voiced Stephanie Cole scores her own determined bull’s-eyes, her expansive girth at odds with the grace with which this accomplished actress bounds about the stage.
Like “The Dresser” before it, “Quartet” is best enjoyed as an acting exercise that allows three of its four established performers to prove to an adoring audience that — rather like the people they are playing — there’s life in the old girls (and boys) yet. Unlike its celebrated forbearer, where the central relationship between the fearsome actor Sir and his dresser-sidekick Norman gave off echoes of Lear and his Fool, “Quartet” doesn’t establish the slightest resonance between these singers’ offstage lives and their task at hand. The new play has little on its mind beyond a build-up to a climactic stunt: the recreation by the cast of the third act quartet from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” — or perhaps one should say Joe Green, as the play prefers to think of the composer in translation.
As a result, “Quartet” trades on situation rather than plot and treads murkiest water when it tries to fuel a scenario that is essentially anecdotal; hence, the inevitably recollection-heavy script. The chief victim of Harwood’s structure is Angela Thorne, playing Jean Horton, a one-time diva with a bad hip who was married briefly to the fastidious Reginald Paget (Alec McCowen), whose own sexual history emerges piecemeal in act two. One of those roles that may read well on paper but is unbearable on stage, Jean reduces Thorne to a quivery-voiced parody of old age who doesn’t so much talk to her colleagues as utter lofty pronouncements along the lines of “my gift deserted me.” (Elsewhere, pontificating about the relationship of democracy to art, she parrots the abiding debate of “Taking Sides.”)
Happily, Thorne takes the only acting misstep amid a company disinclined to treat the play as much more than a collective vehicle shone to a high polish, starting with Tim Goodchild’s high-walled set (elegantly lit by Robin Carter). Even as the characters are forever announcing themselves (“I’m all talk,” says Wilf, long after we decided that for ourselves), the actors reveal fresh colors in what could well seem overfamiliar.
Just watch McCowen forsake, however briefly, Reg’s reticent facade to lash out at the (unseen) rest home employee who denies him marmalade at breakfast — a narrative strand leading to the expected sentimental gesture later on. Or witness Cole bring down the house with her simply stated opening line in which the readiness truly is all. Sinden, in turn, saves his most savory flourish for the end of the first act, playing a man of boundless appetite who stops the show with the single word, “lunch.” It’s at such moments that “Quartet,” however reheated its dramaturgy, could not be more delicious.