Making his directorial debut at 75, Dustin Hoffman might have been expected to get to grips with a classically American story, not least because American stories (from The Graduate to Barney's Version) have given him his greatest roles.

But in adapting an ostentatiously English yarn he reveals an American's tin ear for Englishness. Quartet is set in an England no English person would recognise, a stagey, farcical landscape in which characters play croquet and lament the standard of marmalade, and a dream cast fails to add any texture to a very threadbare idea.

The original 1999 play by the reliable Ronald Harwood, who scripted The Dresser, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Polanski's The Pianist (for which he won an Oscar), was given a lukewarm reception by critics and public in the West End. It's hard to see this doing much better.

It's set in an improbably luxurious retirement home for ageing opera singers and classical musicians, which marks Verdi's birthday each year with a special concert.


The parade of stereotypes includes a very ungeriatric Connolly as a winking, randy old trouper; Courtenay as a sad-eyed, bookish traditionalist; Collins as a jolly contralto succumbing to dementia; and Gambon, in fez and kaftan, as a crazed impresario. The arrival of Smith as a faded diva upsets everything, including the Courtenay character's hope for "a dignified senility".

Of course, it all works out in the end, though mercifully we don't have to watch anyone lip sync to the quartet of the title (Bella figlia dell'amore from Rigoletto, if you're interested). It's ludicrously campy stuff, which you will love if you find Downton Abbey a bit too gritty. The most interesting part is the end credits where the bit players - real musicians with illustrious pasts, and actors including Andrew Sachs (Manuel from Fawlty Towers) - get to take a bow: they deserve it after putting up with this tosh.

Stars: 2/5
Cast: Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay
Director: Dustin Hoffman
Running time: 90 mins
Rating: M (offensive language)
Verdict: Dustin, Dustin, what were you thinking?

- Timeout