Date 5th July 2016
Society Jewish Theatre Group Manchester
Venue Whitefield Garrick
Type of Production Drama
Director Geoff Shindler


Author: Kevin Proctor

On his death, Giuseppe Verdi donated a house in Milan to become a retirement home for opera singers. It must have been a riot: full of elderly tenors and superannuated sopranos who once a year put on a gala performance in honour of their benefactor's birthday. This, Ronald Harwood's play, transplants the situation to a country house in Kent, with four rapidly fading stars of the British opera as the plays focus. It’s easy to imagine how a benevolent home for opera singers could quickly become a malevolent home for giant egos who can barely stand to be in the same room together.

Deborah Finley plays the bubbly, jolly and excitable Cecily who relishes how everything appears fun. Her reoccurring habit of welcoming everyone back from Karachi (no one has been there!) despite being comical, suggests that all is not well and when we’re shown that dementia is taking its ugly hold we’re given a dramatic and unnerving act. Cecily is described by the others as having a larger, chubby frame which did pose a few unconvincing moments given Deborah’s slender physique, however, physical appearances aside, this was a terrific enactment from Deborah exposing humour and distress in equal measure.

Jean Horton’s arrival to the home wakes up some old tensions. Stacey Friedman plays this haughty, officious soprano who can no longer get up above the stave, and Jonathan Berg plays the impotent tenor, Reginald, who cannot get up at all.

We soon learn that not only were Jean and Reginald former co-stars, no – it’s much worse than that – they co-habited as man and wife, for a few hours! Stacey has the command required for Jean then later exposes her softer nature without diluting her presence and Jonathan unmasks Reginald’s insecurities and anxiety related frenzies. 

The best lines go to John Blaskey’s Wilfred - a randy old man who delights in talking dirty to the innocent Cecily - especially when she can’t hear him. His extensive list of all things bad about ageing hit several nerves with the audience and they laughed ruefully and knowingly at every one - young and old alike. We were certainly in safe hands with John!

This was tenderly directed by Geoff Shindler who’d homed in and highlighted some nice traits within the play. A reoccurring pattern emerged whenever any of the players had a chunk of spiel to deliver, they would get up and aimlessly drift around the tiny stage of the Whitefield Garrick. Given this beautifully intimate performance space to present this four hander, it did seem unnatural for characters to pace around the compact and already full stage, don’t shy away from keeping actors grounded to a spot, particularly during poignant moments when they’re baring their soul. It was evident that Geoff has an affection towards this piece which is paramount for any director which resonated.

This was my first visit to the Whitefield Garrick – and what a lovely, magic box venue this is! I hope that this venture has opened up a new scope of play titles and even small musical revues for the JTC to consider staging here. I’d be excited to see what other productions you’d do in this hidden gem!    

“Art is meaningless if it doesn’t make you feel.” This play does make you feel - happy, sad, compassionate, thoughtful - but ends with the uplifting realisation that the body might be fading, but the spirit never dies.