The Best of Friends, a CurtainUp London review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Best of Friends

Plot is the curse of serious drama.
---- George Bernard Shaw
The Best of Friends
Roy Dotrice as George Bernard Shaw
(Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Hugh Whitemore's 1987 play about thought and thinkersThe Best of Friends is revived at Hampstead Theatre prior to a short tour. It is derived from the correspondence of three giants of the Edwardian age, George Bernard Shaw, the playwright (Roy Dotrice), Sir Sydney Cockerell, book collector and Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (Michael Pennington) and a nun, Dame Laurentia McLachlan (Patricia Routledge). In 1924 when Shaw was 68, Sydney Cockerell introduced him to the Benedictine nun, Dame Laurentia and this trio enjoyed a lively exchange of letters for over a quarter of a century.

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
Written by Hugh Whitemore
Directed by James Roose-Evans

Starring: Roy Dotrice, Michael Pennington, Patricia Routledge
Design: Simon Higlett
Lighting: Ben Ormerod
Sound: John Leonard
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 1st April 2006 at Hampstead Theatre
and then on tour to
3rd to 8th April Theatre Royal Bath (01225 448844)
10th to 15th April Milton Keynes Theatre (01908 606090)
17th to 22nd April Malvern Festival Theatre (01684 892 227)
24th to 29th April Theatre Royal Brighton (01273 328 488)
1st to 6th May Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford (01483 440 000)
8th to 13th May Richmond Theatre, Surrey (0870 060 6651)
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 9th March 2006 performance at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London, NW3 (Tube: Swiss Cottage)
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©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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