by Ronald Harwood.
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Tour to 28 August 2010.
Runs 2hr 10min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 12 July at Richmond Theatre.
A gentle contrivance that finally makes its point powerfully.
Anyone for whom a visit to gran and granddad is an invitation to torture won’t like this. The generation who shrug and sigh at a dutiful visit to the parents are unlikely to enjoy it much. But those who’ve been secretly sizing their homes up for Stannahs, for whom the menopause is a distant memory (Alzheimer’s permitting) could find it poignantly amusing.
There’s a cultural question too. The old folks in this Home are former opera singers, enjoying a quiet age. Until Jean arrives. Reginald’s ex-wife, she’s also the one with temperament and vanity, whose refusal to join a performance of the Act III Rigoletto quartet eventually reveals her great shame – Susannah York’s revelation of this has an over-emphasis that’s a rare lapse in Joe Harmston’s tactful production.
Harwood’s retired musicians don’t speak like musicians; they have an awe of music that’s characteristic of operagoers rather than the casual informality with which performers speak of their trade among themselves; and which singer would tell another, like some new discovery, that “Giuseppe Verdi” translates as “Joe Green”?
All fake as wobbly scenery, though Harwood successfully contrives mild fun in Wilfred’s libidinous sallies – thrown-out by Timothy West with flickers of defiance to age – and sympathetic amusement at Cecily’s mental wanderings, super-efficiently steered by Gwen Taylor.
It’s in the directly emotional relationship between Michael Jayston’s Reggie and Susannah York’s Jean matters become uncomfortably starchy. Jayston bristles irefully at the mercurial (busted hip notwithstanding) Jean, until a jar of marmalade melts his resistance – small things count in a much-reduced world. Despite a few glitches, reminding age touches even actors, the performances give these characters conviction.
All along, the question’s how four actors will evoke even past-their-sell-by singers. When career-prime voices sing-out, with orchestra rather than the expected piano, the actors heartily miming, it seems a cheat. Then it becomes clear the fakery is the point. We are not hearing what these old people sing, but the glorious memories it evokes. Reality, like Simon Scullion’s set, flies away and music creates an ideal world, where life’s transient irritations are transformed into something eternally vital.
Wilfred Bond: Timothy West.
Reginald Paget: Michael Jayston.
Cecily Robson: Gwen Taylor.
Jean Horton: Susannah York.
Director: Joe Harmston.
Designer: Simon Scullion.
Lighting: Ben Cracknell.
Sound: Matthew Bugg.