Quartet, Richmond Theatre, July 2010

What is the point of life? For a performer who can no longer perform — in this case an opera singer who can no longer sing — the lights have already gone out. “I’m not the same person any more,” says Susannah York as she joins three other ex-opera singers at a rest home for have-been musicians, suddenly upsetting the balance of equanimity among them. One of the other three, Michael Jayston, was married to her once, before she moved on to three or four other husbands and had two children. “How long were you married?” Timothy West asks Michael Jayston. It seems an innocuous question, but every time it’s asked something happens and the answer never comes. Jayston is clearly appalled and upset by Susannah York’s sudden appearance, and she tries rather ineffectively to apologise for what she did all those years ago.

Susannah York, photo by Paul Toeman

But the three friends, West, Jayston and a charmingly batty Gwen Taylor have been asked to put on a performance to celebrate Verdi’s birthday in October. With York’s arrival it’s clear she should be included and they should do the quartet in Rigoletto with York as Gilda. She hasn’t sung it for years — in fact she retired early — and won’t cooperate. No way will she perform . . . but Jayston thinks he can persuade her, and after some off-stage antics the costumes arrive and she seems to have agreed. Who will be the accompanist to take them through their paces? No one knows, but they seem supremely confident, and say they are bringing in someone from outside. Costumes on, they look terrific, and amid ribald comments from their audience they prepare to start. I won’t let you into the secret, but in the second part of this play by Ronald Harwood you get to see what the point of life really is — it’s life itself.

Joe Harmston directed this fine production, in which Timothy West is wonderful as the Rabelaisian ex-baritone, perpetually full of wisdom and crudely flirtatious intent towards Gwen Taylor. She in turn is excellent as the motherly, helpful and slightly batty ex-contralto, while Michael Jayston is convincing as the cautious, reliably careful ex-tenor who pays his own way in the home. And then Susannah York is the difficult, insecure ex-soprano, still elegant and proud of her past glories. It’s difficult to admit to failures, but in her chatter with Gwen Taylor we find out what went wrong with her first marriage. Perhaps that admission of failure finally allows her to embrace her situation, live life as it now presents itself, and in the final quartet she performed as if she knew the part backwards — maybe she does.

Quartet plays at Richmond Theatre (12–17 July); Theatre Royal Nottingham (19–24 July); Milton Keynes Theatre (26–31 July); Theatre Royal Norwich (9–14 August); Oxford Playhouse (16–21 August); and Malvern Festival Theatre (23–28 August). The dates and theatre for a planned London season have yet to be announced.

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