'Old age ain't no place for sissies," Bette Davis once famously observed. In Quartet, set in a Georgian-style mansion on a lovely patch of English countryside, the "ain't" has been changed to a more proper "is not." But still, the point is clear: Even here at Beecham House, a stately home for retired musicians, getting old is a challenge.
The body breaks down, and sometimes the mind. And memories of past glory rush back to remind you that there's not much glory happening at present.
Adapted by Ron Harwood from his stage play, and directed - in a smart and accomplished debut - by Dustin Hoffman, Quartet is a charming and poignant investigation into the autumn years in which four friends, former opera company stars, come together to put on a show. Of course, there are obstacles to surmount along the way: Jean Horton (the ever droll and beguiling Maggie Smith), a reluctant new arrival at Beecham House, long ago broke the heart of Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), a dapper chap who is not happy to see Jean again.
Meanwhile, the bubbly Cissy (Pauline Collins) is showing signs of Alzheimer's - forgetfulness, disorientation - and the randy Wilf (Billy Connolly) has prostate issues. A hopeless flirt, Wilf's nonstop come-ons to Beecham's female staff, and to the attractive young doctor who runs the place (Sheridan Smith), would be offensive if his lechery weren't so benign. A man with a waggish smile and a Scottish brogue can be forgiven much.