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.
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.
Roy Dotrice brings sprightly mischief to the part of Shaw... the play
proclaims the nourishing merits of true, thoughtful friendship.
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.
A treat – wise witty, civilised and touching, qualities that are at a
premimum, indeed often despised in these tawdry times.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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
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
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.
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.
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.