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A CurtainUp London Review
The Best of Friends
What makes this a very pleasurable evening is of course Shaw's splendid wit, with a very sprightly Roy Dotrice playing the tweed knickerbockered, vegetarian Irishman with plenty of verve and impeccable comic timing. The three start by discussing religion and ideas but the men also disclose details of their marriages and families.
Cockerel shows us that he is a man of caution by checking that he may return the engagement ring if his proposal of marriage is declined. Shaw rather touchingly details s his visit to the Holy Land for the nun and brings her a souvenir, a reliquary with a piece of stone from the holy place which induces paroxysms of pleasure and gratitude. Cockerell's part includes his encounters with so many of the great thinkers and writers of the day. The play opens with his relating how it is 58 years since he went to visit Tolstoy. Of course he isn't name dropping to impress, this is merely a journal of who he met that day and it is our history and hindsight which attributes greatness to these intellectuals. Cockerel shows us how excellent he is at an early version of networking when he targets people of fortune without children and asks them what they will do with their collections when they die. It is their donations which greatly benefit the Fitzwilliam Museum.
Besides GBS's sparkling one liners, the funniest moment in the play is when, after a short estrangement after an argument over the publication of the book The Black Girl, Shaw misreads a card from the nunnery celebrating Dame Laurentia's 50 years as a nun. He thinks that it is an obituary notice and promptly writes to the nunnery extolling the virtues of the woman he thinks has passed away. Like Mark Twain, reports of her death had been greatly exaggerated and she enjoys the joke. I hugely appreciated George Bernard Shaw's newspaper advertisement for a good woman.
The set is in three parts, a study for Shaw, a sitting room for Cockerell and Perpendicular windows and a carved wooden chair for the nun, but each part set looks not out of place with the others. There is some William Morris wall paper and wonderful Arts and Crafts wooden furniture which is perfect for the period and the personalities.
Dotrice is wonderful as Shaw. The epigrams trip off his tongue with exactly the right amount of detached amusement. Patricia Routledge delivers a weighty but twinkling performance as Dame Laurentia and Michael Pennington has the least rewarding role as the anchorman Cockerell, although his description of life with his disabled wife is poignant.
There are moments when the second half slows to inaction but the whole is a charming and witty description of an bygone age. The Best of Friends is another example of Hugh Whitemore's exemplary playcraft and well worth seeing.
For more about and by Shaw, see our Shaw Backgrounder
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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