Adrian Chamberlain’s Stage Left: Aging Quartet still charms

Langham Court production is a worthwhile revival of Ronald Harwood’s 1999 play about retired opera singers

Adrian Chamberlain mugshot generic

As the saying goes, growing old isn’t for the faint-hearted. In Ronald Harwood’s 1999 play Quartet, four aging opera singers alternatively rage against the dying of the light and trade black-humour quips.

Langham Court Theatre just opened a worthwhile revival of Quartet benefiting from the efforts of a strong cast. In today’s post-feminist #MeToo world, some might find the script a touch dated. Still, it’s a pleasant enough evening and a strong community theatre effort.

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In Quartet, four geezers end up in a charity home for retired opera singers. They’re happy to have a place to stay but grumble about their reduced station in life, referring to one another as “inmates. Each was once prominent in the opera world; however, the ravages of time have stolen their voices — an inordinately cruel fate for any singer. They rally for the play’s final scene, in which they sing (or rather, lip-synch) the quartet from Rigoletto at the home’s concert honouring Verdi’s birthday.

Harwood also wrote The Dresser, a play about the frustrations of an aging stage actor. With Quartet, the British playwright again says something about the ability of the human spirit to burn brightly despite the passage of years. This play is unusual in that it provides not only lead roles for the Geritol set but portrays these characters as people with passions undiminished by age.

Harwood is a clever writer and Quartet is replete with funny exchanges. That said, the script is not perfect. Some might find the sexual humour a touch passé — especially the relentlessly ribald bons mots of Wilfred (well played by Alf Small), who’s as randy as a 13-year-old with a new Playboy subscription.

The play’s anti-climactic ending arrives with a disconcerting thump. And despite Harwood’s efforts to lay bare life’s tragedies and disappointments, there’s an element of the saccharine floating through this drama with comedic elements.

Nonetheless, Quartet manages to charm and amuse. On Thursday night, Elizabeth Whitmarsh succeeded in finding the imperiousness and vulnerability within the character of Jean, a famous soprano with a rip-roaring romantic past who cannot believe how far she’s fallen. Refreshingly, when Jean’s selfishness (including a habit of reliving standing ovations) is pointed out, she refuses to back down or apologize. Whitmarsh’s monologue in which Jean tells of losing her voice at a young age was particularly well-delivered.

Wilfred’s lasciviousness is countered by the effeteness of fellow retiree Reggie. Played affectingly by Langham Court newcomer Tony Garnett, Reggie is shattered by the arrival of Jean, to whom he was married briefly as a young man. Garnett convincingly captured the complex nature of Reggie, an interesting and unusual character, a man whose passion for art far superseded any temptations of the flesh.

Fran Patterson plays Cissy, a vivacious, child-like character just starting to lose her marbles. It’s a decidedly comic role — yet on this evening Patterson (a good actor) played it rather broadly with a good deal of mugging. The portrayal was less nuanced than the others and her approach occasionally upset the overall tone.

Director Jon Sheer might have addressed not only this but the play’s final scene, in which the retired singers unite for a costumed “performance.” The scene is curiously underwhelming and inconclusive; in this production, it is darkly lit and lip-synched with little panache or joie de vivre.

Set designer Bill Adams shows off his skill for scenic painting with an impressively rendered tree-filled landscape in Act I.

Quartet continues at Langham Court Theatre to May 4.

Next week, Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre opens Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days.

It’s a credit to the company that the show will go on, given that lead actress Norah McLellan and original director Don Shipley (founding artistic director of the Belfry Theatre) both left the show.

The substantial role of Winnie is now played by Donna Belleville, with Arne Zaslove stepping in as director.

Intrepid Theatre launches its 22nd UNO Festival May 1 to 11. The annual celebration of solo performance showcases such artists as Cree performer Michelle Thrush, Atomic Vaudeville’s Britt Small, Ahmad Meree, Joanne O’Sullivan, Cory Thibert, Sydney Hayduk and Jan Derbyshire.

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