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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Best of Friends
Hampstead Theatre Spring 2006


Hugh Whitemore's theatre piece is one in a small but frequently appearing sub-genre, the performance of excerpts from the letters and writings of famous figures.

Barely eligible for the label of plays - there's rarely any plot beyond chronology - these amiable, low-key works offer some glimpses into the private lives of the correspondents. But their main attraction will always be the opportunity to spend a couple of hours in the company of attractive and talented performers.

And so it is with this vehicle for Roy Dotrice, Michael Pennington and Patricia Routledge, each of them well-loved by audiences who hardly care who they are impersonating.

In this case it's playwright-wit George Bernard Shaw (Dotrice), museum curator Sir Sydney Cockerell (Pennington) and the cloistered nun and Gregorian chant authority Dame Laurentia McLachlan (Routledge), who carried on a three-way correspondence through much of the first half of the Twentieth Century.

(Actually, all three had a wide network of friends and correspondents, and any number of trios could have been built around each of them. But the nun's letters to the other two had already been collected in a book, making Whitemore's job simpler.)

So what do we get? Generally, a discreet and polite lovefest. The agnostic Cockerell and the devout nun share a love of art and nature; Shaw and the nun view their Catholicism differently but respect each other's erudition and writing; Cockerell and Shaw live in the same artistic world.

The nearest thing to drama comes when the unorthodoxy of Shaw's Black Girl In Search of God deeply offends the nun and she breaks off writing to him for a few years.

And yet there are some striking insights. For all her worldliness and warmth, Dame Laurentia does close her mind and heart absolutely on matters theological. Meanwhile, even though she spent almost her entire life within the convent walls and Cockerell was a man of the world, a single afternoon in the 1920s when she passed through London and he showed her some old bibles in the British Museum remained a high point and vivid memory through both of their lives.

The public image of Shaw is too well-established to allow Roy Dotrice much leeway, and so he gives us essentially the same semi-cartoon performance anyone else would. Dame Laurentia is considerably less well-known, but Patricia Routledge settles for a rather generic wise/warm/devout characterisation.

It is left to Michael Pennington to create a character for Cockerell, building on the man's self-assessment as a minor, talentless figure who happened to know a lot of very talented people. Pennington makes him a harmless and slightly comic intellectual groupie, his attractive modesty (thus the thrill of that day with the nun) combined with constant name-dropping, peppering his letters with understated delight in having met figures from Tolstoy through T. E. Lawrence to Queen Mary.

James Roose-Evans' direction animates the essentially static material by converting the letters into across-the-miles conversations. Simon Higlett's design of the three characters' separate environments is up to the always high standards of the Hampstead.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Best of Friends - Hampstead 2006