Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, NW3 3EU
Hampstead Theatre’s decision to revive Hugh Whitemore’s 'The Best of Friends' for its birthday celebrations makes for an appealing choice. Centring on the friendship between writer George Bernard Shaw (Roy Dotrice), Sir Sydney Cockerell the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (Michael Pennington) and the Abbess of Stanbrook Abbey Dame Laurentia McLachlan (Patricia Routledge), this epistolary three-hander provides many uplifting moments.
Taken from the writings of these three individuals, the story, which gathers apace in the second half of James Roose-Evans’ production, explores the nature of friendship and its effect on these peoples’ lives. Interestingly Roose-Evans first directed this play in 1988 and brought John Gielgud to the stage for a final time – Gielgud played Sir Sydney.
The action takes place in Simon Higlett’s authentic set where we notice the comings and goings of these individuals. Costume supervisor Binnie Bowerman deserves a special mention for creating several appealing outfits for her characters.
All three actors give fine performances. The ultimate draw, however, is seeing Routledge – particularly in a nun’s outfit as opposed to the floral creations she wore in 'Keeping Up Appearances'. She gives a stunningly believable account of how easy it is to attain fulfilment from everyday tasks. And it is a joy to watch Dotrice who clearly possesses excellent comic timing and, at the same time knows how to age gracefully on stage. As for Pennington he brings a serene contemplation which is crucial for his role.
With its constant talk of death, belief, religion, friendship, ageing and the after-life, this play should come with a health warning. These sombre topics may unsettle the Hampstead audiences who generally are older than other audiences on the fringe. Nonetheless, this certainly makes for a pleasant and thought-provoking evening.
Director: James Roose-Evans
Playwright: Hugh Whitemore