Front Row Center
By Michael Warren
by Ronald Harwood
Directed by Ann Swiston
Four aging opera singers are residents in a Retirement Home for musicians and performers, and this play revives their memories of long-ago rivalries and triumphs. As usual with Harwood, the writing is wordy and sometimes pretentious – however, first-time director Ann Swiston and her team of experienced actors maintain an excellent pace with quirky characterizations through a long first Act. The second Act is more entertaining, and we long for and finally receive a reward in the form of a magnificent quartet from Rigoletto.
I congratulate Ann Swiston for her work in making this difficult play into a successful study of character and old age, and in particular for her perfect handling of the ending when the actors lip-synch the quartet which makes such a splendid finale. Ann eliminates the fourth wall and actually seeing (and hearing) the performance is a brilliant coup de theatre. It simultaneously gives us a sense of nostalgia while it brings the audience to their feet.
The play opens in an attractive garden-room where three of the former opera-singers are quietly relaxing. “Reginald,” played with understated skill by Roger Larson, is reading while “Wilfred” makes lewd suggestions to “Cissy.” I particularly enjoyed Dave McIntosh’s jovial and very believable interpretation of Wilfred, while Kathleen Carlson is delightfully distracted as Cissy. She can’t hear Wilfred anyway as she listens to music on her headphones.
After a period of mildly amusing banter we hear the news that “Jean Horton” will soon be arriving, and Reginald becomes extremely upset. Jean was a major star in her day and we also discover that she and Reginald were once unhappily married. Peggy Lord Chilton plays Jean with an appropriate level of prima donna bitchiness that makes us sympathize with poor over-sensitive Reggie. She can’t sing any more, but she still wants to rule the roost.
A gala concert is about to take place at the retirement home in honour of Verdi’s birthday, and three of the four ex-singers are keen to recreate the third act quartet from Rigoletto. Naturally, Jean refuses to take part. There is little tension in the play – however, this conflict does enliven the second Act. Quartet has a bittersweet quality, and all four actors do a great job in bringing their characters to life. Throughout the play there is a subtle contrast between the happiness of non-stressful retirement and the sadness of losing once-perfected skills and talents – no doubt there are some in the audience who can relate to these feelings. We laugh a little and sigh a little, as the four players face up to the problems of old age and mortality.
The set was perfectly adapted to the play, and the lighting (in particular the beautiful sunset in the second Act) deserves a special mention. And the sound was wonderful – I could hear every word, and left the theatre with the quartet ringing in my ears.
Congratulations to Ann Swiston and her team for successfully bringing Quartet to the LLT stage. Win McIntosh was Stage Manager and Daphne Peerless was her Assistant, while Phil Shepherd was Production Assistant. It’s not the easiest of plays, and to bring it off is a minor triumph of skill and hard work. Next up is something completely different – a spooky thriller I’ll Be Back Before Midnight by Peter Colley, directed by Roseann Wilshere, opening on November 3rd.