Bristol Riverside Theatre presents Ronald Harwood’s ‘Quartet’

Sour notes

The title of Ronald Harwood’s Quartet, currently onstage at Bristol Riverside Theatre, refers to “Bella figlia dell’amore” (Beautiful daughter of love), from Verdi’s opera Rigoletto. But Harwood’s bloated bagatelle offers little in the way of beauty, and even less to love. Susan D. Atkinson’s labored production feels twice as long as the Ring Cycle.

L to R: Keith Baker, Joy Franz, and Laural Merlington bicker in 'Quartet.' (Photo by Paola Nogueras.)

I promise that will be my only opera-tinged criticism. Would that Harwood, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter and playwright, had shown such restraint. Over the course of two hours, he peppers his action-free script with barely funny bon mots about singing and touring, Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, and the eternal rivalry between baritones and tenors. Only the subject of aging gets more play, and this audience-of-a-certain-age eats up predictable jokes about enlarged prostates and aching hips.

Opera and old age are connected by the play’s setting: a retirement home in the English countryside for divos and prima donnas of days past. Here, tenor Reginald Paget (Nick Ullett), baritone Wilfred Bond (Keith Baker), and mezzo Cecily Robson (Laural Merlington) enjoy a dotage steeped in memories of their prime as the ne plus ultra of British classical music. The unexpected arrival of Jean Horton (Joy Franz), a noted soprano and Reginald’s former wife, threatens the trio’s tranquil existence.

Jean retired at the peak of her career, under unclear circumstances, but Franz’s entertaining performance shows an ego undiminished by decades out of the spotlight. Within moments of arriving, she boasts of receiving a standing ovation upon entering a box at Covent Garden. She casually and cruelly mocks Cecily’s widened waistline and unglamorous appearance. And she won’t deign to consider joining her former colleagues in performing — you guessed it — the Rigoletto quartet for the home’s annual Giuseppe Verdi gala.

Dated comedy

She will, of course; if she didn’t, there would be no play. But the problem with Quartet isn’t that it’s predictable. Plenty of comedies turn the slenderest plot into rollicking good times. Harwood errs by letting the ensuing scenes alternate between tired jokes and treacly remembrances. Dated sexual politics — particularly Wilfred’s disgusting, harassing, and profoundly unfunny language toward women seen and unseen — further weigh down the play, which premiered in 1999 but feels much older. Harwood tries to get serious, but discussions of Jean’s attenuated career and Reginald’s unfulfilled personal life emerge almost as afterthoughts.

Atkinson’s direction rarely helps matters. Quartet isn’t a farce, but it could benefit from an eye toward that genre’s stylistic signatures. (Court Watson’s handsome music-room set certainly has doors to spare). Fleeter pacing would have been appreciated, if only to keep an already exhausted evening humming along. But Atkinson tends to slow down the action, as if to allow her audience ample time to repeat the jokes they’ve just heard (which, at the performance I attended, they often did). Consistency of tone was not a virtue: moments that called for broad comedy often ended up underplayed, while intimate scenes became unintentionally funny.

This uncertainty bleeds into the performances. Though occasionally felled by a wandering accent, Franz manages to imbue Jean with appropriate grandeur, and Merlington has several genuinely touching moments as dementia-plagued Cecily. But  Baker and Ullett fail to distinguish themselves, and none of the quartet are particularly believable as former singers of international quality. I wanted to scream when Franz butchered the name of Rigoletto’s heroine (it’s not Jill-DUH).

But verisimilitude doesn’t seem a high priority on Harwood’s list. He wrote a comedy for oldsters to enjoy, and judging from the audience’s whoops and cheers on opening night, he succeeded in delighting his target audience. For the rest of us, Quartet plays on, painfully out of tune.

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