The difficulty with portraying old age in art is that it can become maudlin, without hope: “And age, and then the only end of age’ as Philip Larkin wrote. But Ronald Harwood deals with his tough subject matter beautifully in his play Quartet.
Here we have four retired Opera singers in a genteel care home. They are surrounded by an elegant set of sumptuous wooden panels, like a gentleman’s club, or Hogwarts School, with a glimpse of lush green space outside the patio doors.
These four have history, used to sing together, two of them were married to each other for a short while, before an acrimonious split. Here they are together, towards the twilight of their lives, reliving these old tensions, remembering past successes.
As we age we can lose some of the things we have come to take for granted in life, physical prowess, swiftness of reaction, clarity of thought, but, as though in recompense, we inherit a wonderful new empire and that empire is the past.
The characters in Quartet have had a glorious past, as feted performers used to curtain calls and standing ovations on the grandest stages. In the play the joy in their lives comes from reliving one of these past glories – by performing again as a quartet in a concert at the care home, though poignantly, they plan to mime to a backing track of their younger voices, reliving their prime.
Due to some wonderful casting all four actors in Quartet, Paul Nicholas, Wendi Peters, Sue Holderness and Jeff Rawle, have history of their own and are immediately recognised by audiences in British theatres as well-known faces from much-loved TV shows and movies.
The older people Harwood has written for them are not doddery old fools, lined up in God’s waiting room, but fully rounded characters, still active, still passionate. There is a surprising amount of sex comedy here, rudeness, laughter. If you are going to finish your days in a care home you feel, then this is the one you would choose.
It’s a beautifully written play this, Harwood’s not an Oscar winner for nothing, and it’s marvellous that a small theatre like the Everyman has managed to pull off a production this sharp and classy.
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It’s difficult for a short review to convey the quality of writing in this astonishing story … I also found myself considering whether this is one of the cleverest allegories I’ve read.