Quartet by Ronald Harwood was chosen by Bernadette Tildesley to launch the improved theatre in Nelson Street. A bold choice! It revolves around four characters with a long history in performing opera together, meeting again in a senior citizens' home. They decide, after protracted argument, to perform the quartet from Rigoletto as a tribute to the composer (irreverently referred to as 'Joe Green') on his birthday. Bold because the play was recently released as a feature film with an iconic cast of Britain's best actors.
Brilliant choice! The play is a far better vehicle for Harwood's main idea than film. The restricted facilities and intimacy of live theatre enable the contrasts in character of these four to trigger our imaginations and identify with their separate personalities perfectly. We have no distractions from impressive scenes or ultra close-up. We see all the characters all the time. It is their relationships and the benefits they have derived from ageing that give the piece its deep meanings. From separate 'divas', downplaying the insignificance of the corps d'opera, pushing themselves into the best downstage light, we watch four real people with all their flaws, discovering how to work together. From 'competition' to 'collaboration' - a journey's purpose achieved via maturity. The final scene in full costume shows the triumph of art over reality when they find at last the harmony their real lives have missed; a beautiful theatrical metaphor. What better way for an amateur company to show its advantages over the professional stage: people who come from all walks of life, motivated and united by their love of theatre (not fame or fortune) and launch a new facility.
The four performances were all sensitively characterised and realistically portrayed. Graham Sinclair Jones breathed life into Reginald, a former tenor who had once been married to Jean. Her appearance at the retirement home is the shock that initiates the action of the play. It was a measured, mature, carefully modulated performance which was always totally credible. Jean, played by Colleen Tudway, is the life-wounded diva who excites little sympathy at the beginning of the play and earns our love and respect as she grows through it; very exacting role, calling for sudden changes of pace and mood. Colleen (though a late addition to the cast due to illness) brilliantly assumed these subtleties and was - like her character - stellar. Cecily, played by Mary Cleare, is a former 'lively lady' - a sexual fantasy for Wilfred. Her effervescence is the yeast of the play. She bubbles and sparkles throughout, always just on the very edge of being barmy. She is adorable from her first line and delights throughout. Just at the climax of the penultimate scene, she 'loses it' and her dementia threatens disaster. A measure of Mary's success within the role is the huge lump in the throat that this brings to the audience. The writer's skill is in showing how her colleagues, now a united team, gently enable her to take her full part. The poignancy of these moments carries the play to an entirely unanticipated level, emotionally engaging and deeply imbued with wisdom. Wilfred, played by Tony Long, is the clown with the sad soft centre. Tony's comic timing is fully capitalised upon and his gentle pushing of the pace always rescues the play's longer moments. However, it is his deep characterisation and the integrity with which he inhabits his character that make his performance so memorable.
Backstage support was, as usual, superlative, flawlessly unnoticeable. Bernadette got the best from an excellent cast and Thame Players have christened their new theatre with a thoroughly well-executed play; a delight to watch, with a great deal to consider in retrospect. Joe Green would have been proud to see it!