That old Rodgers and Hammerstein tune was right after all: There's nothing like a dame.
Four is even better, especially when the dames are Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins.
Director Roger Michell's delightfully low-tech film, "Tea With the Dames," captures the four great ladies of the English theater as themselves, seated at a table enjoying conversation, laughter, tea, and a bit of champagne.
Old chums Plowright, Smith, Dench and Atkins, arrayed before a stationary camera, share gossip, jokes, laments of aging and career triumphs and regrets.
As they laugh and banter with each other, small jewels of theater lore glitter. Atkins vividly describes how she suffers from stage fright. The closest they come to performance is displaying some of their vocal exercises. Their conversation is interspersed with video from some of their celebrated performances as young actresses.
Oliver, the domineering Shakespearian actor and director of the British national theater, looms over the conversation. Each of them gives anecdotes about the difficulty of working with the demanding theater titan. Video shows some of his noted performances, including starring in "The Entertainer" with Plowright and playing Othello in blackface.
Along with Oliver's lauded portrayal of the aging comedian Archie Rice in "The Entertainer, " he's shown playing Hamlet and Henry V. Plowright remembers writing a fan letter to him as an adolescent girl, and how she thought his signature on the return letter was authentic until she learned when married to him that his secretary stamped his responses to fans.
Smith is the most forthcoming, with memories of visiting Oliver and Plowright's home when their children were small. She also remembers filling in for Plowrightt to comfort Olivier during one of his breakdowns. Plowright recalls the excitement of her marriage to Olivier, before characterizing it as "hell."
Looking back at their younger days, Plowright mentions that none of them were considered great beauties. Yet they glow with glamour in the excerpts from their early performances. As Plowright says, they excelled at creating the "illusion" of theater.
Now blind, Plowright most poignantly shows the ravages of old age. Also in their 80s, Smith, Dench and Atkins laugh about the roles they still receive, and how the acting techniques they considered revolutionary in their youth are now disparaged by a new generation. In their youth, they also mocked older stars.
Reluctantly discussing her starring role in the TV hit "Downton Abbey," Smith disparages the series and discloses that she's never watched it. Dench draws gibes for her recent starring turns in James Bond films and other projects.
Their stories are charming and bittersweet. With their beautiful accents and perfect English, they would be captivating reading the phone book.