Ronald Harwood, an Oscar-winner for his screenplay for the Roman Polanski film The Pianist, is probably best known in the theatre for his backstage comedy The Dresser.
In Quartet he turns to another unseen area of theatrical life. The setting is a residential home for retired opera performers, where four singers who once made an acclaimed recording of Verdi’s Rigoletto together find themselves unexpectedly reunited at the end of their lives.
Wilfred, Reginald and Cicely are already established residents when they are joined by Jean, who was evidently once the biggest star but has now fallen on hard times through a lifetime of reckless spending and injudicious marriages.
The question is whether they can cast off the years to perform a celebrated quartet from Rigoletto as part of a birthday tribute to Verdi – a project which is complicated by the fact that Reggie was briefly one of Jean’s husbands.
There are no prizes for guessing the answer, but getting to the final scene in which the actors mime to an impeccable performance with full orchestral accompaniment proves a tedious exercise in what is becoming recognisable as a new genre of geriatric theatre.
You can’t help feeling that such notable actors as Timothy West, Michael Jayston, Gwen Taylor and Susannah York deserve better employment in their vintage years than to be hobbling about making bladder jokes.
There is no reason why ageing should not be as rewarding a subject as any other aspect of human experience, but Harwood’s inspiration seems at a depressingly low ebb here. Wilfred and Reginald’s ruminations on art, for example, seem laughably rudimentary from two people who have spent their lives in its service.
Jayston’s is the best performance, managing here and there to give Reggie some substance despite the thinness of the writing. But the production as a whole has a rather listless feel, unconvinced as well as unconvincing.
Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes. Until Saturday.