Hampstead theatre has built its reputation on staging new writing and it’s not often that they put on a revival. Yet they’ve made an exception for The Best Of Friends, Hugh Whitemore’s elegantly crafted play which explores the long and unlikely friendship between George Bernard Shaw, Sir Sydney Cockerell, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and Dame Laurentia McLachlan, a Benedictine nun and eventual Abbess at Stanbrook.
They’ve assembled a very strong cast for the production. In Roy Dotrice, Michael Pennington and Patricia Routledge they have a trio of accomplished stage actors more than capable of conveying the play’s subtle shifts in tone and inevitable poignancy as the three close friends fall prey to the frailties and bereavements that come with getting older.
Theirs was a friendship based on a love of learning, a need to know more. Though Cockerell was an atheist and Shaw was idiosyncratic in his ideas on faith, this only seemed to fuel the bond between them. Their only real falling out came when Shaw went ahead and published The Adventures Of The Black Girl In Her Search For God, something Dame Laurentia struggled to forgive.
As a Benedictine nun, Dame Laurentia led an enclosed life, never leaving the abbey at Stanbrook where she lived and only allowed to speak to visitors through an iron grille. On the one occasion she travels out of Stanbrook, her brief visit to London – a trip to the British museum with Cockerell – becomes one of the highlights of both their lives, an event they still reminisce about some twenty years later.
Yet, though she lived what many would consider a limited life, as Shaw said of her, she was an “enclosed nun with an unenclosed mind.” Patricia Routledge (sadly still probably best known from dire British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances) conveys well this openness of spirit, the contradictions inherent in a woman who relished knowledge but was content to live the restricted and regimented life of a nun.
White of beard and sharp of wit, Roy Dotrice certainly looks the part as Shaw; he has an appropriately mischievous quality to him, even when old age has started to take its toll. And Michael Pennnington, in the more understated role of Cockerell, holds things together admirably.
Whitemore’s play is drawn from the writings of the three friends; decades worth of correspondence. While it gives the play a rare richness, knowing that these were the true words and feelings of the people involved, there is a level of dramatic flatness. For the most part, James Roose-Evans’ production flows nicely but there is a certain amount of repetition, and when the characters begin to pass away until eventually only Cockerell is left, wondering if the “angel of death has forgotten about me,” the emotional impact isn’t as strong as it perhaps should be.
The Best Of Friends is a very gentle piece of theatre. Well acted and satisfying certainly, but it still feels like an unusual choice for Hampstead. There’s nothing inherently theatrical about the material, it would play equally well, if not better, on radio, As a study of the powerful bonds that can form between people it succeeds, but overall it’s as lacking in energy as its aging characters.