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Setup for Quartet performance in Tovstonogov Theater

Quartet is a play by Ronald Harwood about ageing opera singers.

The play, presented by Michael Codron, was first directed by Christopher Morahan at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford prior to its West End opening at the Albery Theatre on 8 September 1999 starring Sir Donald Sinden.

Following a four-month run it closed on 8 January 2000.



The setting is a retirement home for musicians. Three elderly former opera-singers, who often worked together, are sitting out on the terrace. Reginald, played by Alec McCowen is quietly reading a serious book, but Donald Sinden’s jovial, priapic Wilfred is chuckling about sex, as he regards Cissy (Stephanie Cole), lying back and listening to music through her headphones.

They are about to be joined by newcomer Jean, played by Angela Thorne, a major star in her day and to whom Reginald was once unhappily married.

Is there any chance that these four will ever sing together again? A gala concert is about to take place at the retirement home to celebrate Verdi’s birthday. Three of the four are keen to recreate the third act quartet from Rigoletto and one isn’t. But the play eventually moves to an uncertain conclusion when they don costumes and lip-synch to their own retro recording.

Critical reaction

Writing for The Independent[1] Paul Taylor described the play as “an unashamed — no, shameless — vehicle for four feisty old troupers whose task is to make us laugh a little, sigh a little and cry a little as they take us into the bittersweet world of facing up to age and mortality.”

Charles Spencer (journalist) for the Daily Telegraph[2] wrote: “...the show’s heart is in the right place and a cherishable company of senior thesps give it everything they’ve got, breathing vitality into a script that could be an inert embarrassment if performed by less accomplished players.”

Reviewing the play for The Spectator[3], Sheridan Morley concluded: “Harwood seems to have set out with something sad to say about the ravages of age on a profession which largely depends on staying young, but then to have been sidetracked into a sort of Three Tenors concert celebration without the Three Tenors. So his play doesn’t end, it just stops, and we are left with nothing more than the memory of four performances desperately trying to make bricks despite a distinct lack of straw; if Harwood has anything new to tell us about singers who have for different reasons lost their voices and yet are now going unquietly into that good night, he seems like his characters to have abruptly and irretrievably forgotten what he was going to say. And the rest is a kind of silence.”

Film adaption

The play will be adapted for big screen by Harwood himself in 2011. It will be directed by Richard Loncraine and the principal cast includes Dame Maggie Smith, Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. Dustin Hoffman is rumored to direct. This would be his directorial debut.

Success in Finland

The Finnish adaptation of the play (called Kvartetti in Finnish) is the most popular play in the Finnish theatres in the decade of 2000. The play has been in the schedule of Helsinki City Theatre since the year 2002, and all shows have been sold out.


Theatre Record, volume XIX, 1999.

  1. ^ The Independent 10 September 1999
  2. ^ Daily Telegraph 10 September 1999
  3. ^ The Spectator 18 September 1999


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