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The Best of Friends

Hugh Whitemore
Hampstead Theatre
(2006)

Production photograph

Hugh Whitemore, who adapted As You Desire Me so successfully last year, generally specialises in old fashion plays where ideas not so much prevail over action as replace it. His attitude might well be summed up by a quote from George Bernard Shaw repeated in this play, "plot is the curse of serious drama". Even for him, The Best of Friends must have seemed an unlikely venture.

It is based on the letters of an unusual triumvirate of gentle, learned souls who exchanged ideas during the first half of the last century.

It is possible to have a highly entertaining epistolary play. Taking the two ends of the scale, The Best of Friends is far closer to 84 Charing Cross Road, a play like this one directed by James Roose Evans and adapted for film by the same playwright, than that upmarket French sex romp, Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

For viewers today, only one of the three protagonists, playwright George Bernard Shaw, is still well known. Sir Sydney Cockerell, who describes himself as "an unremarkable person without a spark of imagination" could probably not survive today. As well as being the father of Christopher Cockerell, the inventor of the hovercraft, he was curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and also a book collector who steadily built an impressive collection of manuscripts that eventually made him rich, at least on paper.

He was the linchpin between Shaw and Dame Laurentia McLachlan, a nun who spent sixty years in holy office, wrote a definitive work, "The Grammar of Plainsong" and apparently only once left Stanbrook Abbey in all of that time.

Quite why a nun and two atheists should have become such close, if long-range, friends is the tale that Hugh Whitemore has set out to tell, through the judicious editing and ordering of their correspondence.

Shaw, Brother Bernard to Dame Laurentia, says much about his work and almost literally mortally offends her by publishing The Black Girl in Search of God.

The Dame always has her religion on the brain but offers helpful insights that leave even these atheists wondering about religious faith and grateful for her prayers.

From an opening story about Tolstoy, it is apparent that Cockerell delights in name-dropping but proves a genuine friend to each of the others and eventually they help to sustain each other in times of pleasure and hardship.

Simon Higlett's excellent set is attractive but also has hidden depths. It is ostensibly a comfortable study shared by Michael Pennington's stiff Cockerell and Roy Dotrice playing a Shaw looking every bit the country gent, complete with plus-twos. Patricia Routledge, in full nun's get up, makes her appearances through the French windows.

The designer has ensured that the windows have an ecclesiastical leaning, while the artwork favours the Pre-Raphaelites and wallpaper and curtains look like William Morris fabrics, appropriate since Cockerell was once his secretary.

The pacing rarely rises above pedestrian, particularly in the first half and the humour, as one might expect, is generally gentle. Having said that, there is a moment just after the interval which is so funny that is worth the admission price on its own.

Over two-and-half hours of the play, the lives of these three, quite different eccentrics are laid out for their audience, and philosophy and theology are debated by intellectuals with varied viewpoints.

It all sounds a little dull and worthy and at times it can be, since there is rarely any narrative drive. However, the personalities eventually shine through the structure and one begins to warm to and eventually mourn by losses of these three avid correspondents.

While The Best of Friends would probably work better as a radio play, thanks to moving performances from three highly experienced and much loved actors, it wins over its audience, who by the end, are impressed by far more than the novelty of seeing Hyacinth Bucket in a wimple!

The production will tour to Bath (3 to 8 April), Milton Keynes (10 to 15 April ), Malvern (17 to 22 April), Brighton (24 to 29 April), Guilford (1 to 6 May) and Richmond (8 to 13 May).

Sheila Connor reviewed this production at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Reviewer: Philip Fisher