Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

four voices

Nigel Hales as Reggie, Sue Hawkins as Cissy, Sue Smith as Jean and Martin Bourne as Wilf. Pictures: Poppy Savage


Swan Theatre Amateur Company

Swan Theatre, Worcester


Old age is something we are grateful to reach, the alternative being somewhat less appealing, yet it is something we hate when we get there – the ultimate and final love hate relationship.

And, in essence, that is what Ronald Harwood’s play is about, that twilight world between Shakespeare’s sixth and seventh ages of man.

The title representing a rather care worn double edged sword in this case, the quartet being both Bella figlia dell'amore from the third act of Verdi’s Rigoletto, and the now, should we say . . . more mature . . . foursome of opera singers who had long ago performed a renowned version of Verdi’s opera which had just been re-released on CD.

The singers in question being residents, or inmates as they prefer to call it, in a retirement home for operatic singers and musicians.

We open with three friends who sang together and have known each other for years, all ending up in the same home.

There is Reggie, steady serious, tenor, at least once upon a time, Reggie. He is thoughtful, if rather dull in the steady hands of Nigel Hales. He is reading one of Ernest Newman’s studious tomes about Wagner, the sort of book you suspect is usually bought to impress rather than, God forbid, be actually read.

Then there is Wilf played with a constant sparkle of fun, twinkling eyes and lust for the ladies by Martin Bourne. Once upon a time baritone Wilf, who was once compared to the legendary Tito Gobbi, can see sex in almost -  no forget almost, he can see sex in any situation with Cissy being the current object of his lustful desires.

Contralto Cecily spends her days listening to Rigoletto and her part in it on CD on her Walkman (younger readers ask Grandad).

She is drifting serenely into dementia, that seventh age of man and Sue Hawkins manages that fine balance between potential panto and genuine empathy quite beautifully.


Cissy struggles to remember even the most recent things, and her colonial childhood with parents in India is invading and challenging her present. Sue plays the part gently and compassionately for its many laughs but behind it all we, and Reg and Wilf, can see she is slowly drifting away from our world and they are holding her back as hard as they can.

The trio are discussing the annual highlight at the home, the October 10 gala performance to celebrate the birth of Giuseppe Verdi in 1813, when all the residents were expected to do a turn.

With our trio relative newcomers, all arriving during the past year, this would be their first gala and a break in . . . well as Wilf tells us “time doesn't move slowly in here. It hobbles along with a zimmer frame."

Reg had been asked to reprise his celebrated La donna è mobile from yesteryear, Cissy was trying to remember what was said at the committee meeting she had just attended and Wilf was, as usual, thinking about sex when their already shrinking world was turned upside down by the arrival of a new resident, superstar (once upon a time) soprano Jean Horton, played with a prima donna air, even if a little creased and decrepit now, by Sue Smith.

We discover Reg and Jean had once been . . . it was a short lived and somewhat disastrous marriage. Jean had gone on to change husbands as often as others change cars, while Reg had . . . gone on, it being the only thing to do.


He had lived a frugal life, saving hard to pay for his keep in the home, proud he was not a charity case, like the rest, one of his life’s small victories after the lasting trauma of his marriage, a marriage that still haunted him.

And here we were, Reg and Jean together again, by circumstance rather than choice. Reg’s choice being to never see Jean or hear her name again.

With the famed quartet back together, or at least in the same place, singing the other famed quartet becomes, let’s just say, it would be possible.

The reunion of sorts leads to some soul searching, and some telling and well delivered speeches about age and art and music, and even humanity and humility, from Reggie.

We have laughs a plenty but there are also moments of sadness as our quartet drop the defences and open up. There are Jean’s regrets and her final fall from grace, Wilf’s unfounded reputation and despair at the ravages of age and his refusal to go gently into that good night, Cissy and her strange and troubled childhood and need to be loved and Reg, loner Reg and the secret that had if not blighted, had at least set the course of his life.

Then there is their lost youth, it had been years since they had last sung, did any of them still have a decent voice, or indeed, any voice at all? Would they just end up destroying the legacy they had created so many years ago?

Which all leads up to the gala and the quartet’s quartet . . . which you will have to see and hear for yourself.

This is a play about age and growing old, it is awash with laughs and good humour, and tales of worn out hips, aches, pains and struggling memories only those of a certain age can fully appreciate – and will probably have forgotten about come morning.

We even hear of five minute breaks after each item in the gala concert, “Why?” asks Jean, “Bladders” she is told.

Yet there are moments that are touching, sad even, and, even if we don’t want to think about it, it reminds us of mortality, something we all carry with us . . . at least while we are here.

If there is a fault it is perhaps that the play just stops rather than actually ending. The gala performance is the finale, yet it leaves our quartet in limbo, we never do know what happens to them, we are left to fill in their stories, happy or sad, ourselves.

The studio set is simple and effective and the Rigoletto costumes in the final act add to the gala feel, with Frank Welbourne, off stage, as the voice of gay resident Bobby Swanson, giving us an awkward heckler for Wilf to deal with.

Director Jane Lush keeps things moving along at a gentle pace befitting our operatic seniors, and, mercifully, for those who know the play, ends, quite literally, on a high note. The result is a gentle comedy with laughs and heart, and a bit of Verdi thrown in for good measure. To 30-03-24.

Roger Clarke


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