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The Best of Friends


The British Theatre Guide, Philip Fisher


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 build 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 her 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.


Scott 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 a 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 wince 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-a-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 the 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 Daily Telegraph, 13th March 2006, Charles Spencer


If you wanted to put a bolshie teenager off theatre for life, I don’t think you could do much better than take him to ‘The Best of Friends’. For two and a half hours almost nothing happens beyond a great deal of civilised talk. The actors have all long since qualified for their bus passes, sex barely gets a look-in and there’s no violence at all. Oh, and one of the characters is a Benedictine nun.


What could be more remote from John Osborne contemptuously referred to as the “yoof” of today, the yoof most theatres seem so cravenly anxious to court? But for those of us subsiding happily into the not inconsiderable consolations of middle age, this defiantly unfashionable, heroically unexciting drama is a treat – wise, witty, civilised and touching, qualities that are at a premium, indeed often downright despised, in these tawdry times.


Hugh Whitemore’s play was first stages in the West End in 1988 with a cast comprising John Gielgud (making his last theatrical performance), Ray McAnally and Rosemary Harris. Now its original director James Roose Evans is giving it another airing, this time at Hampstead, the theatre he founded way back in 1959.


Michael Pennington takes over Gielgud’s old role as Sydney cockerel, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Roy Dotrice plays the ancient but still sprightly George Bernard Shaw while Patricia Routledge, “the enclosed nun with the unclosed mind” as GBS put it, who became abbess of Stanbrook Abbey.


The piece is adapted from their letters and writings, and is above all a celebration of a three-way friendship that endured for more than 25 years until Shaw’s death in 1950.


But the play touches on a wide range of subjects, from the way of life in a Benedictine order to the joy of returning spring, from the perils and comforts of age to the mysteries of God and faith.


The evening is not entirely devoid of drama. The friendship between Shaw and the nun was violently interrupted when GBS published ‘Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God’, which in its sceptical approach to Christianity greatly offended Sister Laurentia. At the interval, it looks as though the bitter breach may prove permanent.


I also found myself fascinated, and slightly repelled, by the character of Cockerell. He seems to have collected friends rather in the manner in which he collected books, as objects to possess and boast about.  Indeed you get the chilling impression that he cared more about his famous friends than he did about his ailing wife and young children.


In Roose Evan’s production, set in an enviably cosy study, the actors sometimes address each other directly and at other soliloquise to the audience. All three prove highly responsive to the piece’s subtle shifts in mood, and towards the end a moving sense of mortality becomes ever more pervasive as the characters near the end of their lives.


Roy Dotrice is a delight as Shaw, capturing his love of paradox and mischief, but also finding warmth and generous human sympathy in the man that wasn’t always apparent in his plays. Shaw’s with shines throughout, but there is an unexpected spirituality in this performance too.


Michael Pennington subtly suggests the creepier side of Cockerell’s character, as well as holding the evening together as narrator, but Patricia Routledge is perhaps a touch too roguish as the nun, at times almost honking with pleasure like a sea-lion at feeding time. I would have welcomed a deeper suggestion of contemplative wisdom, but it’s a minor blemish on a quiet but richly rewarding evening.



Evening Standard, 14th March 2006, Nicholas de Jongh


Now that the pleasure of conveying news, views and feelings by posted letters has given way to the impersonal brevities of the emails and text message, ‘The Best of Friends’ serves a rare, nostalgic purpose.


Hugh Whitemore’s adaptation of the 20th-century letters that passed for decades between George Bernard Shaw, Sir Sydney Cockerell and Dame Laurentia McLachlan, the Abbess of an enclosed convent enables us to appreciate bygone ages: telephones still rang rarely then, close friendships or even love affairs were sustained by letter and could survive death, thanks to their epistolary expression.


Strictly speaking this entertainment, which marked Sir John Gielgud’s farewell to the theatre as Sir Sydney in 1988, lacks plot and action. Yet for all the courteous trivialities and high-minded gossip of their correspondence, dramatised within Simon Higlett’s evocative recreation of Cockerell’s study, there develops a touching sense of friendship ripening, harvested and stoically declining in the fadings of old age.


James Roose Evans, Hampstead’s founder in 1959 and its first artistic director, celebrates a long overdue return to his theatre in a production imaginatively if perhaps too frequently animated with business.


Miss Routledge’s irritatingly winsome, chuckling Abbess stores apples, delivers posies and even escapes her grilled confines to visit London and Michael Pennington’s Sir Sydney, whom this versatile actor makes the model of antique elegance and civility.


Roy Dotrice’s superbly flamboyant, iconoclastic Shaw injects welcome touches of radicalism and vitality. Of drama there is just a flash: arrogant Dame Laurentia displays a religious intolerance and eagerness to censor that strike familiar bells today when she demands Shaw arrange for the pulping of what she considers his blasphemous novel, ‘Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God’.




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