Last of the Red Hot Lovers

Neil Simon
Regal Entertainments Ltd
St Helens Theatre Royal

St Helens Theatre Royal is a venue which proudly gives the lie to the stereotype of the theatre-goer as a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual bourgeois snob. The crowd here (mostly women, tonight) are, in the best sense of the phrase, ‘ordinary folk’. Good on them and good on the Theatre Royal.

It’s 1969; the summer of love is not long past and the sexual revolution is still turning. Barney Cashman wants in. 47-year-old Barney is a successful fish-restaurateur with the unfortunate habit of smelling his fingers. After 23 years hitched to his childhood sweetheart, Thelma, Barney is having a mid-life crisis, which he hopes to ease with some extra-marital sex.

Last of the Red Hot Lovers is a play of three scenes, each of which features Barney attempting an afternoon of illicit passion with a different woman (none of them Thelma). The scene of these trysts is an opulent apartment (three-piece leather suite and all) belonging to Barney’s mum. (Fear not, Barney’s mum spends afternoons doing charitable work at the Mount Sinai Hospital). This is a sex comedy not a bawdy romp and, no doubt, any Google search for ‘sex comedy’ would throw up the keyword ‘frustration’.

Neil Simon’s comedies, loaded with sharp, New Yorker dialogue, can ask a lot of an audience and, in the first scene, it feels as if people are concentrating so hard that their laughter becomes almost an afterthought. This is a shame as the cool, cynical Elaine, the first object of Barney’s desire, is a fine comic creation; one part Mae West, two parts Philip Marlowe in a dress. We get the impression that she’d be unstoppable—if only she could get a cigarette.

Face-to-face with what he thinks he wants, Barney prevaricates, finding Elaine’s determinedly easy virtue hard to stomach. Even though the clock is ticking towards his mother’s return, Barney wants to slow things down. “I just thought you might want to know more about me,” he tells Elaine. She doesn’t. The mood degenerates and by the time Barney is summing up Elaine’s lifestyle as ‘sad’ (never a good seduction line) we realise this encounter will not be ending in carnal bliss.

When Elaine leaves, a frazzled but relieved Barney declares he will never do such a stupid thing again. Yeah, right.

Scene two sees the arrival of Bobbi, a blonde bimbo bombshell—and an opportunity for Debra Stephenson to put on her best Monroe. The audience laps it up and, deservedly, the laughter starts to flow more freely. There are some nice moments here, including a deliciously knowing wink to The Seven Year Itch (only this one involves an air-conditioning unit, not a subway grill).

A more relaxed, more eager and better lubricated Barney can’t wait to get to grips with this voluptuous wannabe actress but, this time, she’s the one who has stories to share. It seems that for some “mysterious” reason, men (and women) always want to take advantage of Bobbi... physically, that is. No surprise then, that Bobbi is a woman with issues. She becomes increasingly volatile and stressed and you know how best to relieve stress, right? No. Not that way. The other. (Clue: it involves a cigarette packed with a dried leaf not belonging to a tobacco plant).

Into scene three and Barney is making his third attempt at infidelity. This time the afternoon visitor is Jeanette, the wife of Barney’s friend, Mel. Third time lucky? Well, perhaps not.

“I don’t find you physically attractive,” Jeanette informs him, almost as she walks through the door. What develops is the most serious-minded, even profound, of the three scenes (though not lacking in Simon’s trademark humour) and if the ending is conservative, almost cosy, it is no less truthful for that.

Steven Pinder plays Barney with panache, while the admirable Debra Stephenson takes on all three female roles. Both are miked-up throughout and, not for the first time in productions I’ve reviewed, the technology proves about as reliable as Barney’s attempts at seduction. No matter. The duo are troupers and Pinder, in particular, makes comic virtue out of sound drop-out, feedback whine and assorted other snap, crackle and pop along the way.

Stephenson yet again shows herself to be a gifted mimic, but she’s also a capable actress and, once the comic interplay between her and Pinder finds its rhythm, this should be a gem of a show.

An enjoyable production, a relaxed atmosphere and (would you believe it?) the seats are pretty comfortable, too!

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson