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April 06. Patricia Routledge on stage in

The Best Of Friends

 

 

At 77 years old, Patricia Routledge is still fit to perform in a 2 1/2 hour play "The Best Of Friends" adapted by Hugh Whitemore from the writings of three remarkable persons Dame Laurentia McLachlan (Patricia Routledge), Sir Sydney Cockerell (Michael Pennington) and George Bernard Shaw (Roy Dotrice). The three characters who existed in real life between the 1850s and 1950s exchanged a large number of letters. Their rich ideas about religion, politics, travel, experiences etc are now shared in a clever play where the three friends meet, talk, argue,  reconcile, laugh,  care  for  each other  and  remember shared memories.

 

Beautiful voices, elegant English, clever script, warm atmosphere, wonderful performance. A real intellectual delight for genuine theatre lovers. Probably not everyone's cup of tea as there was no real action, but only talking. The play could have been a radio adaptation but it was a priceless pleasure to admire those three top British actors in the flesh.

 

  

 

  

    Michael Pennington

    Patricia Routledge

    Roy Dotrice

  

 

London Hampstead Theatre

 

 

TOUR DATES:

2 March to 1 April:

Hampstead Theatre London (020777229301)

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

 

3  to 8 April:

Theatre Royal Bath (01225448844)

 

10 to 15 April:

Milton Keynes Theatre (01908606090)

 

17 to 22 April:

Malvern Festival Theatre (01684892227)

 

24 to 29 April:

Theatre Royal Brighton (01273328488)

 

1 to 6 May:

Yvonne Arnaud Theatre (01483440000)

 

8 to 13  May:

Richmond Theatre, Surrey (08700606651)

 

London Hampstead Theatre Brochure

 

Click on the pictures to display the other side of the brochure

 

This small 20 x 21cm double sided brochure from London Hampstead Theatre is available here at $3 (Limited number) >>>

 

Various reviews

 

If you feel a hankering for a piece with grace, mental elegance and literary distinction seldom found in our raucous, dumbed-down world, why not join Patricia Routledge, Michael Pennington and Roy Dotrice as they roam the first half of the 20 th century.  The Times

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Patricia Routledge wonderfully conveys the warmth and toughness of the lady, while Roy Dotrice does a good lookalike Shaw and Michael Pennington holds the ring as Cockerell. Daily Express

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Roy Dotrice brings sprightly mischief to the part of Shaw... the play proclaims the nourishing merits of true, thoughtful friendship. Daily Mail

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A sturdy production boasting fine performances from Roy Dotrice as the bewhiskered Irish sage, Michael Pennington as the the ‘infidel’ aesthete and Patricia Routledge as the wimpled woman of faith. Metro

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A treat – wise witty, civilised and touching, qualities that are at a premimum, indeed often despised in these tawdry times. Daily Telegraph

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Boasting a title like the blandest of television sitcoms, and starring Patricia Routledge (Hyacinth Bucket, Hetty Wainthrop and so on) as an elderly nun, this seemed bound to be a very tedious evening indeed. How blissfully wrong I was. It makes for a warm and wonderful evening’s theatre, in which three wise, witty, passionate and wildly disparate old friends spark off each other to glorious effect. It’s also a play so boldly unfashionable that it takes Christianity seriously. In the age of Jerry Springer: The Opera, that is about as subversive as it gets.

The three friends are George Bernard Shaw (Roy Dotrice); Sir Sydney Cockerell (Michael Pennington), antiquarian, man of letters and director of
Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum; and the Benedictine Abbess of Stanbrook, Dame Laurentia McLachlan (Routledge).

All Hugh Whitemore has done is to take the best moments of their voluminous correspondence — all three lived into their nineties — and dramatise them. Sounds simple, but to make such a success of it must have taken enormous skill and judgment, and a kind of courage, too. At one point, Shaw complains that “plot is the curse of serious drama”, and the point is wryly self-referential. There is no plot here to speak of, only three intertwined lives, three long friendships, complete with arguments, tiffs, tantrums, reconciliations and, above all, lasting affection.

Dame Laurentia emerges as a femme formidable, an intellectual powerhouse who pioneered the restoration of Gregorian chant in
England, although she is also self-righteous and domineering at times. Shaw, in Dotrice’s sprightly, wonderful interpretation, is far more amusing and less irritating than you might expect from a preachy, teetotal, vegetarian socialist who remained a virgin until he was 29, and even, so rumour had it, kept himself intacto throughout his marriage until his death at 94. His Irishness is to the fore here, which helps. Pennington’s Cockerell is a sweet, gentle, pensive counterpoint to these two bossy-boots, drily funny and observant throughout. When he mentions with quiet paternal pride that his son invented the hovercraft, he is so self-effacing that you barely notice it.

It is extraordinary how this venerable trio of great actors bring as static an idea as an epistolary play into dramatic life. The furious arguments that took place on paper between Dame Laurentia and Shaw about everything under the sun, from religion to politics to the joys of travel, are here turned into rich, compelling dialogue. James Roose-Evans’s direction is intelligent and restrained, and Ben Ormerod’s lighting, bathing the set in an autumnal tobacco-gold, is exceptional. The autumnal glow extends to the characters as well. All are nearing old age and death, and all approach it with differing degrees of faith and fortitude. Cockerell and Shaw both saw their wives die, and longed to go after them. Dame Laurentia, at least, didn’t have that problem, as she was married to Jesus.

Cockerell lived on another nine years after the deaths of his two great friends, and it is he who has the final word here. But my favourite moment was earlier, when he turned to the audience and confided, that: “The secret of a happy life ...” A hush of audience expectation. He beamed. “... is to talk to everyone.” After a momentary sense of anticlimax, on consideration this little pearl began to sparkle. What the world needs now is dialogue, sweet dialogue, and this is a play made up pretty well entirely of dialogue. But for the occasional burst of frenzied activity, as Routledge arranges a vase of flowers, action is really not what it is about. Rather it is an oblique elegy to the lost art of intimate letter-writing; a touching portrait of friendship; and a bold, remarkable, richly enjoyable display of the joy of language and of communication itself. It’s good to talk. Four stars.

Christopher Hart. The Sunday Times

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If you wanted to put a bolshie teenager off theatre for life, I don’t think you could do much better than take him to The Best of Friends. For two and a half hours almost nothing happens beyond a great deal of civilised talk. The actors have all long since qualified for their bus passes, sex barely gets a look-in and there’s no violence at all. Oh, and one of the characters is a Benedictine nun.

 

What could be more remote from what John Osborne contemptuously referred to as the “yoof” of today, the yoof most theatres seem so cravenly anxious to court? But for those of us subsiding happily into the not inconsiderable consolations of middle age, this defiantly unfashionable, heroically unexciting drama is a treat – wise, witty, civilised and touching, qualities that are at a premium, indeed often downright despised, in these tawdry times.

 

Hugh Whitemore’s play was first staged in the West End in 1988 with a cast comprising John Gielgud (making his last theatrical appearance), Ray McAnally and Rosemary Harris. Now its original director James Roose-Evans is giving it another airing, this time at Hampstead, the theatre he founded way back in 1959.

 

Michael Pennington takes over Gielgud’s old role as Sydney Cockerell, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Roy Dotrice plays the ancient but still sprightly George Bernard Shaw while Patricia Routledge is Dame Laurentia McLachlan, “the enclosed nun with the unenclosed mind” as GBS put it, who became abbess of Stanbrook Abbey.

 

The piece is adapted from their letters and writings, and is above all a celebration of a three-way friendship that endured for more than 25 years until Shaw’s death in 1950.

 

But the play touches on a wide range of subjects, from the way of life in a Benedictine order to the joy of the returning spring, from the perils and comforts of age to the mysteries of God and faith.

 

The evening is not entirely devoid of drama. The friendship between Shaw and the nun was violently interrupted when GBS published Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God, which in its sceptical approach to Christianity greatly offended Sister Laurentia. At the interval, it looks as though the bitter breach may prove permanent.

 

I also found myself fascinated, and slightly repelled, by the character of Cockerell. He seems to have collected friends rather in the manner in which he collected old books, as objects to possess and boast about. Indeed you get the chilling impression that he cared more about his famous friends than he did about his ailing wife and young children.

 

In Roose-Evans’s production, set in an enviably cosy study, the actors sometimes address each other directly and at others soliloquise to the audience. All three prove highly responsive to the piece’s subtle shifts in mood, and towards the end a moving sense of mortality becomes ever more pervasive as the characters near the end of their lives.

 

Roy Dotrice is a delight as Shaw, capturing his love of paradox and mischief, but also finding a warmth and generous human sympathy in the man that wasn’t always apparent in his plays. Shaw’s wit shines throughout, but there is an unexpected spirituality in this performance too.

 

Michael Pennington subtly suggests the creepier side of Cockerell’s character, as well as holding the evening together as narrator, but Patricia Routledge is perhaps a touch too roguish as the nun, at times almost honking with pleasure like a sea-lion at feeding time. I would have welcomed a deeper suggestion of contemplative wisdom, but it’s a minor blemish on a quiet but richly rewarding evening.

Hugh Whitemore’s delightful play celebrates the camaraderie between Dame Laurentia McLachlan, Sir Sidney Cockerell and acclaimed playwright George Bernard Shaw. Young at heart and full of intellectual vigour, the three friends share gossip, laughs, ideas, experiences and memories in this captivating comedy.

The Best of Friends is an irresistible look at friendship, love of learning, and the inquiring mind’s incessant search for answers to the big questions. This witty celebration of the enduring value of true friendship is the perfect theatrical treat!
Charles Spencer. Telegraph

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So devoid of any sense of theatricality is this piece that it would hardly bear up on radio, let alone in a theatre.

 

Hugh Whitemore’s script is so dry it is arid, little more than three barely developed characters reciting their correspondence to one another over a period that covered most of the first half of the past century.

 

That one of the characters is George Bernard Shaw is little excuse for creating this piece. Dame Laurentia McLachlan, an abbess, was one of the leading church figures of her time. Academic Sir Sydney Cockerell was director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and a man who collected the company of intellectuals with the same fervour he employed in collecting his medieval manuscripts.

 

Despite their obvious academic talents, their letters to one another are little more than the rather bland musings of friends - with the exception of Bernard Shaw, who very occasionally makes a witticism or statement that reveals a little of his character. Roy Dotrice, Michael Pennington and Patricia Routledge recite very nicely.

 

There is no hint of a through line to which an audience can grasp, nor any development of the three almost cardboard cut-outs that float aimlessly across the stage.

 

Director James Roose-Evans’ return to the theatre he created is no more than a slight nod to its past - a past that has seen all concerned enjoy far better times.

Jeremy Austin. The Stage

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Playwright George Bernard Shaw, Sir Sydney Cockerell (director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge) and Dame Laurentia McLachlan (abbess of Stanbrook) were the best of friends. Over 30 years they corresponded with each other on a regular basis, detailing their lives, thoughts and - in latter years- their many ailments.

 

Sadly, Hugh Whitemore's play, based on their letters, is the worst of theatrical experiences. Starring Roy Dotrice as Shaw, Michael Pennington as Cockerell and Patricia Routledge as McLachlan, it is warm, intelligent and always elegant, but about as exciting as a cup of cocoa spiked with half a dozen Mogadon. Its place is on the radio, not in the theatre - although I did spend one scene quite happily admiring the abundance of William Morris wallpaper and Roy Dotrice's fake beard.

 

"I never invent plot. It is the curse of serious drama," booms Shaw. Clearly Whitemore has taken the advice to heart. There is no plot here, just a gentle setting of the sun as one by one the correspondents stop singing and fall off their perches. By the end, Dotrice's Shaw looks like a wizened little sparrow that has become entangled in cotton wool. I'd quite happily read the letters, but having them dramatised serves no purpose at all.

 

Essentially, this is well-bred anecdote theatre in which three fully paid-up members of the great and the good - played by three fully paid-up members of theatre's great and good - stand around on stage and talk to themselves. Dame Laurentia McLachlan, described beautifully by Shaw as "an enclosed nun with an unenclosed mind", didn't get out much, so these three friends never actually met up. It severely reduces the dramatic possibilities of the piece. I kept hoping that something, other than an interminable discussion of the railway timetable, would happen before death intervened to claim them - and me.

 

What saves it from utter tedium is the sheer wit of the correspondents, particularly Shaw, who rails against the Nobel prize (which he refused) and squabbles with McLachlan over religion. I also liked Cockerell's assertion, when his finances improved, that at last "one would be able to have an egg with one's tea" - something I yearn for myself. Pennington and Dotrice do most of the work, and Routledge specialises in a beatific beam that suggests sainthood is imminently to be bestowed. One best saved for great-aunts of immense age and sweet disposition.

Lyn Gardner. The Guardian