Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Biloxi Blues

Neil Simon
Vanburgh Theatre, RADA
(2004)

The Vanbrugh Theatre at RADA is generally only used by the Academy's students but it is now apparently welcoming visiting companies. It is a wonderful space with state-of-the-art design both on and off stage.

Biloxi Blues is Neil Simon's autobiographical tale of his period of training as a conscript in the US army during the Second World War. In the late 1980s Mike Nichols turned it into a film starring Matthew Broderick and Christopher Walken.

Eugene Jerome, played by Pepe Balderrama, is Simon's alter ego. A shy Jewish boy who loves to record everything that happens to him and his colleagues, he has three ambitions when he joins up. They all seem perfectly reasonable: to become a writer, not get killed and lose his virginity.

By the end of the play, he happily reports that, as we have seen, he has achieved two out of three and on the basis that the play got written, the last is a foregone conclusion. With the statistic that 68 per cent of soldiers involved in overseas combat were likely to die, this is fortuitous.

Biloxi Blues follows half-a-dozen new recruits who are posted to Biloxi, Mississippi in the steamy Deep South. Their arch antagonist, the part played in the film by Christopher Walken, is a mean sergeant whose job is to turn these misfits into soldiers.

By far the most interesting are a pair of Jewish intellectuals, Eugene himself and Arnold Epstein, a carbon copy of the young Woody Allen. Tom Lawrence as Epstein has many of the best lines and is probably also the best actor in the company.

This Talmudic thinker sets himself the task of beating the sadistic sergeant by philosophical logic and intelligence. By the end, Simon scores it as a draw, though that is being generous to the bull-headed bully, played by Will Norris who lacks the necessary thunder for the part.

Gari Jones' production, came in at exactly three hours, including a brief theatre evacuation. It has a painfully slow tempo and as a consequence, much of the comedy is dissipated and, with so much time to think, the surprises become predictable. With acting that rarely excels and despite odd funny moments, a much more urgent pace that could possibly take half an hour or maybe even an hour off the running time is desperately required.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher