Although its management and clients would have you believe otherwise, there was a time when the words “William” and “Morris” were not routinely followed by “agency.” The earlier Morris was the founder of the Arts & Crafts movement, a designer riposte to the mass production of the machine age. Anyone wishing to see examples of his work should hotfoot it to “The Best of Friends” because the set is something of a museum piece. The same, alas, applies to the play itself.
In almost every sense, there is nothing new about Hugh Whitemore’s 1988 chronicle of friendship filleted from the words of three erudite, inveterate letter writers. “Some friends of mine, I have to keep apart,” observes Sydney Cockerell (1867-1962). “Others I want to bring together.”
It is thanks to the latter position that a 30-year three-way correspondence was born between Cockerell, the director who transformed Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum from a ramshackle regional collection into a national treasure house; Benedictine nun Laurentia McLachlan (1866-1953); and the celebrated Irish critic, playwright and socialist scourge of the establishment George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950).
“One of the great events of a not uneventful life” is how Shaw (Roy Dotrice) retrospectively describes his meeting with Dame Laurentia (Patricia Routledge).
As with everything else in this play, we have to take his word for it because we don’t get to see it. With the exception of one brief scene between Cockerell (Michael Pennington) and Dame Laurentia in which events are actually dramatized, the rest of the play is in reported speech — in other words, dramatic limbo.
This makes for reflective, civilized debate but it’s hardly the stuff of drama — a circumstance not lost on Whitemore, who artfully staves off criticism by including Shaw’s observation, “Plot is the enemy of drama.”
Whitemore fashions letters and memoirs into direct address by intercutting consecutive responses to questions in the letters to resemble exchanges of dialogue. He has been here before, having written the screenplay for “84 Charing Cross Road,” another epistolary drama of long-distance friendship with no meeting. The latter, however, positively seethes with incident compared with this one, which, if it were a film, would be an inaction picture.
Instead of dramatic activity or subtext, we are offered articulate, elegantly constructed, long-range discussion, much of it centering around religion. Cockerell is a skeptic, Shaw a lapsed Christian, but over the years their friendship deepens as they argue genially with Dame Laurentia, who eventually becomes an abbess. The most civilizing aspect of their unusually sustained debate is their mutual respect for different positions.
James Roose-Evans, who helmed the original 1988 production with John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris and Ray McAnally, doesn’t so much direct as steer his pedigree cast to speak nicely in and out of chairs.
Pennington rolls out his best patrician, storytelling manner, neatly growing more querulous as time passes. He’s also good at Cockerell’s pernickety fastidiousness, but it’s Dotrice who steals the acting honors.
Not only does he appear to age before our eyes with little or no recourse to makeup, he lends the increasingly curmudgeonly Shaw a surprisingly capricious tone that amusingly undercuts the character’s overweening certitude. The subtlety of his quietly affecting characterization, however, is almost a rebuke to Routledge’s generalized, self-satisfied perf. Beneath the wimple and the beaming, she’s too condescending to embody Shaw’s description of “the enclosed nun with the unenclosed mind.”
Yet Routledge is a name who can guarantee ticket sales, thanks to her massively popular BBC sitcom persona of social-climbing Hyacinth Bucket. Her presence alone has afforded “The Best of Friends” what is billed as a “pre-West End” tour.
More conservative auds happy to forgo genuine drama in favor of polite, autumnal musings on the blessings of friendship may be tempted to book for what others will see as the equivalent of a finely cast audio book: well-spoken well-intentioned and, well, dull.