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Quartet by Ronald Harwood. Caxton Theatre Grimsby.

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

Quartet by Ronald Harwood

Caxton Theatre Grimsby

Tuesday 12th October 2021

What is a theatre without drama? The latest offering from Grimsby’s Caxton Players is due to open and the production of Ronald Harwood’s classic play Quartet is not without drama - a group of badly behaved, former opera stars cause chaos in their residential home. It is a bittersweet, comedy-drama that evokes memories of lost youth and the fear of growing old. The foursome is resident in a home for ageing performers and has been invited to perform the quartet from Verdi's opera Rigoletto. Are they up to the task? Can they still perform? Can they still sing? Can they get on long enough without raking up the past?

The director's attention to detail can even be seen on the cover of the fictional CD of Rigoletto which purports to feature the performers in their heyday, though will remain unseen by most of the audience.

Ronald Harwood, one of British theatre’s leading writers is best remembered for his plays Quartet, The Dresser and the screenplay for The Piano. This production reminds us why he was such a loss to the world of theatre when he died in 2020. The script is clever, witty and full of character. It is a prime example of a well-made play. There is little unexpected in the story, but it is a joy to watch this company deliver Harwood’s lines with relish.

All four performers (director included) give excellent performances. It is nice to see age-appropriate roles for older performers. So often, there are few roles of this type. In his first performance with the Caxton Players, Michael Mayne provides us with an incorrigible, lusty rogue as Wilf Bond the renowned baritone. He is more than believable as a former opera singer with a deep, rich voice, that toys with any female around him. His sense of mischief and comic timing are excellent and his focus even when not the centre of attention is apparent. The comedy mask falls away in Act Two as the audience learn that he is far from the lothario he paints himself as and misses his wife dreadfully.

The urbane Bruce Forster as Reggie Paget, a tenor of note, provides a wonderful comic foil and contrast to Wilf. He is a man who likes to keep his private life private but records everything in his little black book to give his life order and meaning. It is the arrival of his acerbic ex-wife Jean at the home that kicks off the action in the play. Bruce brings calm to proceedings with his delivery and mannerisms. Wrapped up in his thoughts and perhaps struggling with inner demons he does not care to share unless shouting at his carers who deny him his beloved lime marmalade. His affection for his fellow performers in their little "elite" group is clear, as is his loyalty. Bruce makes Reggie a very sympathetic soul.

As Jean, Debbie Shepherd gives us a refined and dignified fallen star who retains a little too much diva with those around her. Her clipped tones reflecting the curt manner with which she treats everyone. Her reticence to perform with her former castmates drives the narrative as we delve deeper into their past lives and indiscretions. As her vulnerability begins to show, our sympathy grows.

And rounding out the quartet is Christine Cornthwaite, as the wonderfully eccentric Cissy, the object of Wilf’s desire, whose memory is sadly fading and seems destined to be “removed” from the home if things get worse. Cissy clearly loved life but is struggling in her golden years. Her memory is fading and her compatriots fear that she will be removed from the residential home if she becomes difficult to cope with, as so many have been before her. They strive to look after her and protect her from herself. Christine's beautiful performance and evokes both humour and sympathy as Cissy’s journey progresses. The former sexpot still has the power to manipulate Wilf, even though she remains oblivious.

Each interacts marvellously with their fellow castmates and it is clear that they have had great fun bringing this play to the stage. And what a magnificent stage it is too. Not a traditional box set, the design is off centre and pleasing to the eye allowing the performers to stretch the boundaries of their performance. I shall say no more for now. Talking to Debbie Shepherd after the rehearsal, the director said, “I won't single any one person out for helping me but would generally like to thank each and every one of the Caxton family that has gone above and beyond to help me get the set looking how it does which is exactly what I had in my mind’s eye from the start. For that, I thank you for your skills, time and support (you know who you are)”.

This lovely, gentle play will stir the emotions as it reminds us that ageing disgracefully is often more fun than ageing gracefully. I heartily recommend it.

Andy Evans

13 October 2021

The show runs from the 16th to 23rd October from 7:30 pm nightly and tickets are available from, as well as other outlets listed on the poster below.

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